The Best Way to Wash Fruits and Vegetables—8 Tips

Wednesday Oct 30 | BY |
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Wash Produce

Do you need to use soap to wash produce? What’s the best way to get rid of pesticide residue?

Fruits and vegetables are good for you—but the pesticides, wax, and bacteria often found on them are not.

In November 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement saying that evidence demonstrates associations between early life exposure to pesticides and pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function, and behavioral problems.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that pesticides can cause birth defects, nerve damage, cancer, and other problems that may occur over a long period of time.

Meanwhile, we’ve all been witnesses to a number of E. coli outbreaks, some linked even to organic produce. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that infection with Campylobacter, a food borne bacteria, was 14 percent higher in 2012 compared with 2006-2008. (Exposures come from undercooked poultry, raw milk, produce, and untreated water.) Vibrio infections, while rare, were 43 percent higher in 2012 compared with 2006-2008.

Fortunately, you can take steps to both reduce the pesticides you ingest and reduce your risk of coming into contact with dangerous microorganisms.

Shop for Fewer Pesticides

It’s true that you can remove some pesticides from fruits and vegetables with proper washing, but you can’t get them all. Pesticides incorporated into the plants while they’re growing are impossible to remove in your sink. Called “systemic” pesticides, they’re actually inside the plant rather than on the outside, as that’s where they work to fend off bugs.

The four main types of systemic pesticides used on food crops are:

  1. Imidacloprid: Applied to many vegetables, including tomatoes and leafy greens, right up until they’re harvested.
  2. Thiamethoxam: Applied to the soil to grow corn and most other vegetable and fruit crops.
  3. Clothianidin: Treatment on canola, cereals, corn, and sugar beets, and as a soil treatment for potatoes.
  4. Dinotefuran: Applied to soil or sprayed on leafy greens, potatoes, and cucumber family crops.

Studies have found residues of these pesticides in produce samples. In tests conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1999 to 2007, 74 percent of conventionally grown fresh lettuce and 70 percent of broccoli samples showed imidacloprid residues. Clothianidin was found in potatoes, thiamethoxam in strawberries and sweet peppers, and dinotefuran in some collard greens.

We don’t know yet what effects these pesticides will have on human health, but to avoid them, you need to shop for organic produce that doesn’t use them. Refer to the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Shopping Guide for Produce. They say you can avoid 80 percent of pesticide consumption by avoiding the conventionally grown produce listed in their Dirty Dozen.

Wash Off the Rest

Unfortunately, while tests have shown that organic produce has “fewer” pesticides than conventional, there’s no guarantee that organic means “pesticide-free.” Under the laws of most states, organic farmers are allowed to use a wide variety of chemical sprays and powders on their crops.

These pesticides, however, must be derived from natural sources and not synthetically manufactured. The equipment used to apply the pesticides must not have been used to apply synthetic pesticides, and the soil must not have been treated with synthetic materials for the past three years.

So even if you buy organic, it’s important to wash your produce to cut down your risk. Here are eight tips for the best way to get rid of pesticide residues, bacteria, and wax on your fruits and vegetables:

  1. Wait: Sometimes we think we need to wash the produce right away, but washing before storing can promote bacterial growth and speed up spoilage. Wait until just before you use them.
  2. Trim: Cut tops and outer sections of lettuce, cabbage, celery, and other leafy vegetables to get rid of pesticide residues and bacteria that may have settled on the outside surface.
  3. Separate: Lettuce and other greens are best washed individually. Separate the big leaves before cutting and put in a bowl of cold water. (For extra cleansing, add a half cup of vinegar to every one cup of water, which has been shown to work better even than liquid soap at removing bacteria.) After a few minutes, rinse well. Blot dry with paper towels or use a salad spinner to remove excess moisture.
  4. Add vinegar: Studies show it helps kill bacteria and viruses and helps break down wax. A 2003 study from the University of Florida found that a 10 percent vinegar mixture reduced bacteria by 90 percent and viruses by about 95 percent.
  5. Brush: For things like potatoes, turnips, carrots, apples, cucumbers, and the like, wash well, and use a firm scrub brush to remove wax and bacteria. If you’re concerned, peel off the skin.
  6. Wash what you cut: You may think that a cantaloupe, for example, doesn’t need to be washed, but whatever is on the outer skin can be transferred to the fruit when you cut into it. Wash melons just as you would apples and carrots.
  7. Try natural recipes: You can make your own produce wash at home with a few simple ingredients. Try a cup of water with half cup white vinegar, one-tablespoon baking soda, and 20 drops of grapefruit seed extract or lemon juice to fight off bacteria. In addition to using this as a wash in a bowl, you can also put it in a spray bottle and spray produce, scrub, and rinse. These are especially great for removing wax.
  8. What about produce washes? Some of them are safe. Look at the ingredient list to avoid any potentially harmful chemicals. But realize that water and vinegar will likely work just as well and are cheaper. Studies at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station compared pesticide removal methods on 196 samples of lettuce, strawberries, and tomatoes. Some were rinsed under tap water for a minute, others were treated with either a one percent solution of Palmolive or a fruit and vegetable wash. Tap water significantly reduced resides of 9 of 12 pesticides, and worked as well as soap and wash products. Researchers noted that water temperature was not the key—friction was. So always rub the produce back and forth with your hands for at least 30 seconds.

Do you have other tips for getting pesticides and bacteria off produce? Let us know.

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“Pesticides and Food: Health Problems Pesticides May Pose,” EPA,

“Trends in Foodborne Illness in the United States,” CDC,

Barbara Pleasant, “Systemic Pesticides: Chemicals You Can’t Wash Off,” Mother Earth News, October/November 2010,

“About Organic Produce,” OCF at the University of California, Berkeley,

Anahad O’Connor, “The Claim: A Soap-and-Water Rinse Gets Produce Cleanest,” NY Times, October 4, 2010,

Walter J. Krol, “Removal of Trace Pesticide Residues from Produce,” State of Connecticut,

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story, a northwest-based writer, editor, and ghostwriter, has been creating non-fiction materials for individuals, corporations, and commercial magazines for over 17 years. She specializes in the health and wellness field, where she writes and ghostwrites books, e-books, blogs, magazine articles, and more.

Colleen is the founder of Writing and Wellness. Her fantasy novel, “Rise of the Sidenah,” was released with Jupiter Gardens Press in September 2015. Her literary novel, “Loreena’s Gift,” is forthcoming in spring 2016 from Dzanc Books. She lives in Idaho.


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  1. Happy Birthday AnnMarie 🙂 🙂

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