Any way you slice it, a cutting board is an essential kitchen tool — but it also can serve as a breeding ground for nasty germs that can make you sick.

Cutting boards need to be cleaned and sanitized the right way because they can harbor pathogens such as campylobacter, listeria and salmonella, says Benjamin Chapman, PhD, a professor and food safety expert at North Carolina State University. Those illnesses can make you feel awful, causing symptoms such as fever, stomach cramps and vomiting, according to FoodSafety.gov.

You can keep yourself and your family safe by following these five cutting board food safety tips.

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1. Know the pros and cons of different materials. There’s a common myth that wood cutting boards aren’t as safe as plastic boards. In fact, "both carry different risks,” says Chapman. Plastic is easier to clean and sanitize but more likely to get knife grooves, where bacteria can hide. Wooden boards can’t go in the dishwasher but do have natural antibacterial properties. They suck in moisture, along with bacteria, which die off as the board dries out, he says. Glass cutting boards are super easy to clean and sanitize, but they’re notoriously tough on knives.

2. Choose the right board for the job. Designate a plastic cutting board for slicing raw meat, poultry and seafood you plan to cook, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends. You can use a separate plastic or wood board to slice and dice ready-to-eat foods like apples, bread, cheese, cold cuts and veggies, Chapman says. Using separate boards helps avoid cross contamination — for example, getting salmonella from raw chicken on the cucumber you’re slicing for a salad. 

3. Clean and sanitize right. A trip through the dishwasher will clean and sanitize a plastic cutting board in one easy step, but the dishwasher can ruin wood, Chapman says. You can wash any cutting board by hand with warm, soapy water, according to the USDA. After you wash and rinse, choose your sanitizing method based on the type of cutting board:

  • Plastic: To sanitize a plastic cutting board, spritz a solution of diluted bleach and water (about one tablespoon to a gallon.) Let the bleach stand a few minutes, then rinse the board, the USDA recommends. Don’t mix up more bleach solution than you can use in a week because the bleach evaporates over time, Chapman says. 
  • Wood: To sanitize a wood cutting board, spray on a quaternary ammonium sanitizer like Mr. Clean, diluted according to the instructions on the bottle, Chapman says. Don’t use bleach on wood because organic matter (like wood) reacts with chlorine, making it less effective, Chapman says. Follow the instructions on the bottle, which should say whether to let the solution sit, then rinse, or let it air dry.

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4. Dry it out. Bacteria need moisture to grow, so dry your board, Chapman says. You can pat the board dry with a paper towel, according to the USDA. But Chapman recommends letting cutting boards air dry completely in an airy, sunny part of the kitchen. It’s a good idea to own multiple cutting boards — Chapman has five — so you have a clean cutting board to use while recently washed ones are drying. “Drying really, really helps,” he says.

5. Toss worn boards. Deep cuts or grooves caused by knives can harbor pathogens and make a board more difficult to clean, according to the USDA. “When your cutting board has deep grooves, it’s time to get a new one,” Chapman says. If you’re buying a wood board, look for one made of a hard wood such as ash or maple, he says. Avoid softer woods like cypress, which tend to develop gashes or cracks where germs can grow, he says. Bamboo is OK, as long as it’s hard. “Bamboo can be either hard or soft,” he says.

Follow these steps, and you can chop both your food and your risk of getting sick from a contaminated cutting board.

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Allie Johnson is an award-winning freelance consumer writer with a degree in magazine journalism. She lives in Georgia with her husband and two dogs.