Are concrete countertops unsanitary?
By Jeffrey Girard, President, The Concrete Countertop Institute
For years, many of my clients have asked about the sanitary qualities of concrete countertops and have expressed concern that they might be difficult to keep clean.
Homeowners and designers, if you are considering using concrete countertops in your kitchens and have concerns about cleaning and sanitation, you need to understand that well-made concrete countertops are very cleanable and sanitary, despite what you may have heard from those trying to disparage concrete countertops.
A study performed by the Hospitality Institute of Technology and Management in 1999 looked at various countertop surfaces, including concrete. The results of that study found that concrete was more difficult to clean (as measured by the reduction in bacteria population on the surface after cleaning) than granite.
What makes this study less useful than it appears is that the description for each material tested is very specific about the brand, finish, grade and type of material tested, except for concrete, where no specific information about the custom sample was provided.
This is significant because it treats the unknown sample of concrete as representative of all concrete used for countertops. Lumping all concrete together, as if every concrete countertop made was identical to every other one out there, is misleading and just plain wrong.
Many factors are involved that affect how cleanable (and therefore sanitary) a countertop surface is, and these factors apply to all surfaces. The smoothness, lack of surface voids or pits and the porosity all have a profound influence on how easy or difficult it is to clean a surface. Surfaces that are rough or that have pinholes can trap dirt, grease or food residue, which are essentially food banks for bacteria. Porous surfaces, like wood, tile grout, unsealed stone or unsealed concrete absorb contaminants into the surface and also absorb moisture. Bacteria need moisture to survive, and surfaces that act as moisture reservoirs allow bacterial growth.
Properly finished and sealed concrete can be virtually impervious to fluids, especially water. High quality concrete countertops shouldn’t have pinholes in the surface that can trap food and dirt. The use of hardeners or densifiers can reduce the porosity of concrete to the point where water doesn’t penetrate. And impervious coatings that are properly applied can provide waterproof barriers that seal the concrete and prevent contaminants from actually getting to the concrete. Some coatings actually provide anti-microbial protection, as defined by the EPA.
Sure, unsealed concrete can be porous. But few fabricators leave their concrete unsealed because they recognize the vulnerability to staining that unsealed concrete presents. Unsealed granite, marble and limestone can also be very porous. StoneTech Professional, a well-known and respected provider of sealers and stone care products, wrote an excellent article (see reference below) about the issues of sealing, porosity and antimicrobial properties for granite. The article points out many of the same issues discussed in the previous two paragraphs; they apply to granite as well as to concrete.
Remember, any countertop that isn’t kept clean will harbor bacteria. Just like frequently washing your hands, simple preventative steps can eliminate many serious problems down the road.
A competent concrete countertop maker will take the following steps to ensure your concrete countertop is sanitary and easy to clean:
- Ensure the surface has no pinholes or voids that can trap dirt, food or other debris.
- Make sure the surface is smooth and easy to wipe clean.
- Seal the surface to reduce its porosity so that fluids cannot penetrate into the concrete.
- Use sealers that prevent contaminants from getting to the concrete or use antimicrobial enhanced sealers that prevent bacteria from surviving on the surface.
- Educate you about what the countertops are sealed with and how to keep them clean so that they don’t inadvertently damage or strip off the protective sealer by using harsh, inappropriate cleansers. And encourage you to keep them clean so the countertops remain looking like new and they stay clean and sanitary.
To call concrete “unsanitary” requires more information about the concrete than simply knowing it is concrete. High-quality concrete countertops made by a competent contractor are sanitary. Sidewalk concrete is not. Without knowing what kind of concrete the Hospitality Institute of Technology and Management studied, it is impossible to conclude from that study that concrete countertops are unsanitary.
Snyder, O. P., 1999, The Reduction of E. Coli on Various Countertop Surfaces, Hospitality Institute of Technology and Management, Mar. 22, 1999.
StoneTech Professional, 2004, Summary of Antimicrobial Study, Originally found on StoneTech Professional Website. See https://www.concretecountertops.net/uploads/File/Sanitation%20of%20Countertops.pdf.
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