A Guide to Washing Produce

Our scientific and medical communities strongly encourage us to eat more fruits and vegetables. But many parents are concerned about the safety of fresh produce, and we’re frequently asked about methods for washing produce. This post will focus on the importance of washing produce, recommended methods to wash fruits and vegetables, the safety of food wax, and whether cleaning solutions are needed to wash fruits and vegetables. 

Is washing produce necessary?

While parents’ primary concern with unwashed fruits and vegetables are pesticide residues and waxy coatings, health officials highlight that our primary concern should be microbial contaminants. The CDC highlights that produce account for nearly half of all food-borne illnesses, and leafy vegetables make up the bulk of these cases. The method of farming (organic or conventional) is not included in these statistics. Consequently, we cannot state that organic or conventional food is safer/less safe when it comes to food-borne illnesses.

Although parents often worry about washing produce due to pesticide residues, our focus should be on washing produce due to pathogens. Image from Pixabay – User RitaE

In some cases, the bacteria that contaminate our foods come from manure used for fertilization. Sprouts are particularly prone to bacterial contamination because they grow in warm and damp conditions, which are also perfect for bacteria to grow in. In other cases, food gets contaminated with viruses and bacteria from individuals who handle the food, whether they’re workers in the food system or the shopper in front of you who didn’t wash their hands after using the bathroom.

In terms of pesticide residues, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a program that monitors pesticide residues on domestic and imported produce. The latest dataset, which examined produce from 2017, found that 99% of produce had pesticide residues well below safety limits. Additionally, over 50% of produce had no detectable residues at all. In these studies, the produce was gently rinsed before any analysis, assuming that this is what customers do. This further stresses that we need to wash produce, even though the risk from pesticide residues is very low.

How should fruits and vegetables be washed?

Both the FDA and the CDC stress that food safety begins in the grocery store. These institutions suggest:

  • Keep meats and raw produce physically separate from one another, even in the grocery cart and in grocery bags.
  • Ensure that food that is ready to eat, such as pre-cut fruit or packaged salad, are properly refrigerated and stored.
  • Choose fruit and vegetables that is not damaged.
  • Use separate cutting boards for vegetables and meats, and wash with hot water and soap between use.
  • Clean out the sink and other surfaces that produce will come into contact with hot water and soap before starting. 

To prepare the produce, these institutions recommend the following:

  • Cut off any damaged parts.
  • Remove the outer leaves of leafy produce such as cabbage or cauliflower.
  • Scrub firm produce (like melons).
  • If you’re going to peel the produce, wash it before starting so that bacteria and dirt don’t get transferred.
  • Wash the produce under running water. Soap is not needed.
  • It is not necessary to wash pre-washed/rinsed bagged salads.

It is important to note that boiling/cooking foods is the safest way to prepare vegetables.

SciMom's Guide to Washing Produce. Recommendations include: remove outer leaves of leafy produce; ensure surfaces and sink are clean; rinse in cold, running water; cut off any damage; cleaning solutions are not needed; and scrub firm produce. It is important to note that the primary risk of unwashed produce is not pesticides or wax: it is bateria and pathogens. Consequently, these measures reduce our exposure to pathogens, but does not eliminate the risk. The safest way to prepare vegetables is to boil them.
SciMom’s Guide to Washing Produce

Are cleaning solutions needed for washing produce?

No, the FDA and CDC both state that cleaning solutions are not needed. In most cases, the cleaning solutions have not been evaluated to find out if the residues they leave are safe. If needed, a 2:1 solution of water:white vinegar can be prepared to soak leafy greens, which gets rid of more bacteria than just water.

Is food wax safe?

Many fruits, particularly apples, are coated with a thin layer of synthetic wax. This layer increases the shelf-life of the fruit by helping the fruit retain its moisture. It also protects the fruit, and makes it shiny and more appealing to the buyer. Apples create their own wax and the amount they produce depends on the variety. A synthetic coat is often applied because the natural one can be partially lost with washing and can decay during storage. The amount of wax applied is minimal compared to the amount that fruits naturally produce. 

The components of the synthetic wax are labeled as GRAS (generally recognized as safe), which we have reviewed in the past. Common ingredients in these waxes include “sugar cane, beeswax, carnauba, and resins.” However, if there is a strong desire to remove the waxy coating, it can be peeled off or apples can be left to soak in vinegar.


Washing fruits and vegetables is important. However, fancy or extreme measures are unnecessary. Plain water is sufficient to wash microbes, although, like anything else, it is not a 100% guarantee. Parents should be primarily concerned about best practices in food preparation and minimizing bacterial sources, instead of waxy or pesticide residues.