Is it dangerous to leave dishes unwashed overnight?

Proving yet again that Gwyneth Paltrow's better than most of us, over the weekend she revealed her high standards when it comes to cleaning plates. “I can’t sleep at night if there are dishes in the sink,” she said.

Doing the washing-up before bed is one of those steps beloved by cleaning and productivity experts. It sounds simple to stick to, but in practice can be easily avoided with the simple words: “I’m just leaving them to soak.” You know they are a physical reminder of your laziness – an extra job for tomorrow and a bacteria farm – but you’re full and tired, and Springwatch is about to start.

Is there any harm in it? “I think there are other things that are more important to worry about, in terms of hygiene,” says Lisa Ackerley, a food-safety expert. “Bacteria on [dirty dishes] will breed overnight, but if they go into the dishwasher the next day and they’re thoroughly washed then there won’t be a problem. Those germs aren’t going to start crawling all over the kitchen.” However, if you don’t have a dishwasher – which uses a higher water temperature than our hands could withstand – and you’re washing by hand, “then it’s probably better to get them done the night before. But I wouldn’t lose sleep over it if you do it every now and then.”

Conversely, is there a danger we’re being too clean? One study in Sweden suggested that children who grew up in households where the dishes were handwashed had a lower risk of developing allergies because they were exposed to more microbes. Ackerley says we “have to be careful” when we complain about being too clean. “We need to make sure we reduce the risk of getting an infection, while also allowing the microbiome [the body’s community of bacteria] to be healthy.”

The main exception to this rule, she says, is if you have been using a chopping board and knife to prepare raw meat, especially chicken, which carries a high risk of being contaminated with campylobacter, the most common cause of food poisoning. Utensils and boards should be washed straight away, says Ackerley. “If I don’t have access to a dishwasher, I would use an antibacterial cleanser. I’m not advocating using masses of it all over the place, but I would use it in those circumstances on the work surface and chopping board.” Incidentally, Paltrow’s lifestyle business, Goop, just happens to sell washing-up liquid as part of a cleaning kit – yours for just $80.

The Guardian / Photograph: Thomas Northcut/Getty Images

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