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Clean Insights Blog

What is cross-contamination? A quick deep dive into this commonly asked question.

| February 21, 2020
What is cross-contamination? It’s when:

  • A chef cuts a piece of steak and then in a hurry, slices an apple without washing the knife. 
  • A nurse uses a towel to wipe bedrails and then uses the same towel to wipe down a table in the same room. 
  •  A gym manager uses a cloth to clean a treadmill and then uses the same towel to clean barbells and yoga mats. 

These are all common examples of how cross-contamination occurs. It’s easy to accidentally transfer germs, bacteria, viruses, and pathogens from one surface to another, despite your best effort to avoid it.

hile we often think of cross-contamination as something that only happens in kitchens or hospitals, cross-contamination can occur in any setting.

If you’ve ever asked, “What is cross-contamination?” we wrote this article especially for you. 
Here’s everything you need to know about cross-contamination and how it happens in facilities.

What is cross-contamination?


Mirriam-Webster defines cross-contamination as the inadvertent transfer of bacteria or other contaminants from one surface, substance, etc., to another especially because of unsanitary handling procedures.

In simpler terms, cross-contamination happens when bacteria or pathogens are transferred from one surface, such as a kitchen counter, to another surface, like a treadmill, via an object like a knife, towel, or hands – which is how it typically transpires. 


Cross-contamination happens in all facilities, both big and small and can happen in many ways. One way is if a cloth or towel is used to wipe one surface and then is used again to wipe another surface without it being properly cleaned. Another way is if a surface or item that is already contaminated comes into direct contact with another surface. This then allows the bacteria to migrate to the next surface. 


 Here are some examples of how cross-contamination can happen in facilities and businesses: 

  • A janitor uses a towel or cloth to clean one surface that contains bacteria or microorganisms and then uses the same towel to clean another surface. Doing this transfers the bacteria that was on the first surface to the towel as well as to the second surface that was cleaned with the towel.
  • A cook slices raw chicken on a cutting board for a meal he is preparing. He then uses the cutting board to slice lettuce for a salad without disinfecting it with an EPA registered disinfectant or FDA approved sanitizer. The bacteria from the chicken will now be transferred to the lettuce since the cutting board was not properly cleaned to eliminate lingering pathogens and germs.
  • A nurse wears gloves while examining a patient with flu-like symptoms. During the visit, she has direct contact with the patient. She then examines another patient for a routine physical/check-up wearing the same gloves. The influenza virus from the first patient will now be transferred to the second patient via the nurse’s gloves. 
  • An employee makes a sandwich on the breakroom table. After preparing the sandwich, she goes back to her desk to eat it without sanitizing or disinfecting the table. Another employee then uses the same table to make tacos. The bacteria from the previous person’s sandwich is now transferred to the second employees’ food. 
  • An office assistant sneezes into her hands and then uses her computer to send an email without using hand sanitizer. Her coworker then asks to borrow her computer and she gives it to him, without disinfecting the keyboard. The germs from her sneeze, now on her hands as well as the computer, will be transferred to her coworker via the computer. 


For certain industries, it’s important to understand where cross-contamination can most likely happen in order to take steps to prevent it. Here are cross-contamination hotspots by industry: 


  • Patient rooms
  • Electronics (keyboards, tablets, cell phones, etc.)
  • Surgical instruments
  • Instrument trays and stands
  • Floors

Here is where cross-contamination can happen in gyms.


  • Fitness equipment 
  • Bathrooms 
  • Changing rooms 
  • Tanning beds 
  • Eating areas 
  • Front desk 


  • Massage tables 
  • Changing rooms 
  • Bathrooms
  • Robes
  • Towels 
  • Foot massagers 
  • Tools and utensils 


  • Tools and equipment that come into direct contact with raw produce and meat (knives, cutting boards, etc.) 
  • Counters and tables 
  • Door handles 
  • Floors 


  • Desks 
  • Phones 
  • Break rooms (refrigerators, microwaves, tables, coffee pots, dishes, etc.) 
  • Copy rooms (copy machine buttons, fax machine buttons, etc.) 
  • Bathrooms 
  • Conference rooms 

Cross-contamination can happen in hotels.


  • Remotes 
  • Lamp switches 
  • Bathrooms 
  • Beds 
  • Fitness centers and gyms
  • Bars, restaurants and eating areas 
  • Lobby 
  • Elevator buttons 


Now that you know what cross-contamination is, you probably want to know how to prevent it.


Start by educating your staff on what it is, how it can happen and what actions can cause it.

After that, teach them how to avoid it by always disinfecting and sanitizing surfaces after coming into direct contact with it, not using the same towel or cloth to clean multiple surfaces, and by making sure to sterilize all surfaces in your facility at least once a day to remove and kill lingering germs left behind by customers or guests. 

Introduce new standards and plans to ensure your staff and guests are cleaning with appropriate materials such as single-use EPA registered disinfectant wipes, FDA approved sanitizing wipes or general cleaning wipes that won’t spread germs and bacteria, but also won’t damage equipment.


Cross-contamination is something that all managers, business owners, and facility operators should be concerned about. It can happen anywhere, anytime. But having the right products can prevent it from happening altogether.

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