Why Wash Cans?

By Carolyn Shearlock © 2014 • all rights reserved

People tell you to wash cans of food when you bring it aboard . . . but why? And why wash them again when you're going to use them?

Most of us don’t wash our cans when living ashore, so why wash them on the boat?

A couple of reasons:

  • On the boat, you are likely to buy foods at stores with less turnover, particularly if you’re cruising in more out of the way spots.  Cans on shelves — even for just a week — can get a little dirty.
  • You don’t want to bring dirt — along with any insect eggs or excrement — onto the boat in general.  And you really don’t want to open a can and have a dirty lid fall into the food in the can!
  • If you are cruising in less developed countries, warehouses and stockrooms of stores are more likely to have “critters” — both bugs and rodents.  This makes eggs and excrement even more likely . . . yuck!

People tell you to wash cans of food when you bring it aboard . . . but why?  And why wash them again when you're going to use them?I use a bleach solution to wipe off cans that look at all dirty when I bring them aboard — theoretically it’s 2 tablespoons of plain unscented laundry bleach per 1-1/8 cups of water, but I admit to usually putting some water in a small bowl without measuring it exactly and then adding a good “glug” of bleach.  I use either a rag or sponge to wipe off the cans . . . and no, I don’t bother to take labels off unless they’re falling off or look dirty. But since my lockers are all top-opening, I do label the tops of cans to make it easy to find what I want.

Be sure that cans are dry — either air-dried or wiped off — before placing them in lockers.

When I use cans, I wipe the tops off again with a bit of bleach solution.  Far more than in “home” cupboards, cans tend to pick up dirt in lockers.  I think it’s the motion of the boat that tends to put dust in motion — and maybe shake some loose from the locker interiors.

I keep bleach solution in a spray bottle so that it’s easy to use (read more about it here) — I spray the top of the can and then wipe it off with a cloth, taking extra care to get the groove where the lid meets the lip and dirt tends to accumulate.  While even using water will get any dust and dirt off, using a bleach solution will help to disinfect the lid so that if it falls into the can contents in won’t contaminate the food.  This is particularly important with foods that won’t be cooked before being eaten, as heat won’t kill germs.

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  1. Where falling lids are concerned, it helps to change to the can-opener type that peels the lid from the can top rather than cutting out a disc. The disc can fall into the can, the peeled top can’t

  2. A few years ago I was in a grocery store in the US and I was early enough to get there while the insect exterminator was still spraying poisons around the canned goods. Since that time I always wash cans before opening.

  3. Dani left the following note on another post, and I thought it was relevant here too:

    Hi hope you don’t mind if I add something I learned from my brother, who worked in a grocery store.

    He told me that the way canned goods are handled, it is inevitable that some cans will be exposed to things like rat and cockroach urine. He said for this reason, one should always wash off the outside of any can before opening it. (Same for canned beverages!)

    When I thought about it, I wondered why that had never occurred to me before. Considering that when people are boating, they might be picking up groceries from places with even more such risks, I think it’s a good idea (and you should wash your hands after handling cans too).

  4. Never

  5. No…should I and why ?

  6. Thank you…..from here on out I certainly will…makes sense.

  7. Bugs

  8. Could you use something like a mesh laundry bag and dip them the salt water?

  9. You are in one of my Top 5 Sailing Bloggers– love your content, and short and sweet delivery. Bravo and thank you for sharing your experiences!!

  10. The side cutting can openers are a good way to make sure the lid doesn’t fall into the can. Plus, no sharp edges are left to cut you, or, sometimes more importantly, the plastic trash bags you put them in.

  11. I started washing cans years ago when I witnessed an exterminator spraying in a grocery store and saw him just lightly spray over the cans on a display. I was totally taken aback, and when confronted, he said he did it all the time and that that was why you didn’t see roaches on the cans in the store. So there could be poison or bug droppings, or whatever on those cans–so I was them before opening-ALWAYS!

  12. I agree wholeheartedly with Michael R. Miller. The side open can opener is the best! I like Oxo but there are many – pay a little more and get a good one.

  13. Just loaded 600 cans of beer.
    Never wash any can.

  14. Hope it arrives soon and sail safe!

  15. Because of rodents – mostly the ones in warehouses where cans are stored before hitting the store shelves. I always wash my cans.

  16. Claire Ford says:

    Susan, you are absolutely correct. I have a brother who used to drive for Morton Foods who would not shop at Kroger because of what he saw in the warehouses. He said the cleanest warehouses belong to Food Lion. I wash ALL my cans before opening even though I use the under-the-lip type opener.

  17. Your last two sentences are exactly the reason my mom taught me to wash the can top.

  18. Cheap white vinegar works as well and less hassle than bleach in my opinion. Otherwise great article 🙂

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