When it comes to convenient kitchen appliances, air fryers are right up there with toaster ovens and microwaves. Cooking with these fantastic fryers cuts calories from your food and saves a ton of time (they crisp up just about anything in a matter of minutes).
But possibly best of all, these handy dandy devices involve less hassle as they minimize mess. Seriously, there's barely any grease left in the basket after each use — which is probably why you're prone to putting off cleaning them as often as you should.
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But a filthy fryer is not your friend. Here, Ellen Shumaker, PhD, director of outreach for the Safe Plates Program at NC State University, explains why a dirty air fryer can be dangerous to your health and shares tips to keep yours tidy.
Risks of Using a Dirty Air Fryer
1. It Can Raise Your Risk for Foodborne Illness
"If an appliance is not cleaned and sanitized following use, there is the risk that potentially harmful bacteria could survive on the surface and continue to grow," Shumaker says.
And these meddlesome microbes can possibly make you sick with a foodborne illness. Indeed, each year, approximately 48 million Americans become ill due to contaminated food, according to the USDA.
When it comes to pollution with pathogens, uncooked meat and poultry products are common culprits, Shumaker says. Case in point: Campylobacter and salmonella — two types of bacteria that can taint raw poultry — may survive on a surface for up to 4 and 32 hours, respectively, according to the USDA. That's something to consider the next time you toss those juicy chicken tenders in your air fryer.
But preventing foodborne illness is totally possible: Just keep your air fryer fresh with a combination of cleaning and sanitizing (more on this later). Cleaning removes debris from a surface while sanitizing kills off potentially harmful bacteria that can make you sick, Shumaker says.
Plus, proper cooking practices (like using a food thermometer to check a food's internal temp to ensure doneness) can also destroy any dangerous microorganisms, she adds.
Signs of foodborne illness may appear minutes after a meal or may manifest weeks later. These include flu-like symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or fever, per the USDA.
If symptoms persist or if you’re at a greater risk for developing more severe illness (for example, infants, young children, pregnant people, older adults and those with weakened immune systems), seek immediate medical attention.
2. It Can Cause Cross-Contact Between Foods
If you or someone in your household has a food allergy, maintaining a spotless air fryer is even more fundamental. That's because an unclean appliance can cause cross-contact between foods.
Cross-contact happens when an allergen is unintentionally transferred from one food to another, according to Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE).
Problem is, an untidy air fryer can contain traces of a food allergen that can put a person at risk for a potentially serious allergic reaction, Shumaker says.
For example, say you air-fry a piece of meat marinated in a peanut sauce without washing the appliance afterward. Remnants of the peanut sauce may remain inside. And if someone who has a peanut allergy eats food cooked in the tainted machine, it can result in an allergic reaction.
Even if it's imperceptible to the human eye, the tiniest trace of food may initiate an allergic response, per FARE.
And while you can kill bacteria — and combat foodborne illness — by cooking food at certain temperatures, heating doesn't eliminate a food allergen or prevent the possibility that a person's immune system will overreact to it, according to FARE.
Similarly, folks with food intolerances can also feel the effects of a soiled air fryer. Take, for instance, those with gluten intolerance. Gluten-containing foods can contaminate gluten-free foods in your filthy fryer. This is why the Gluten Intolerance Group recommends people use separate air fryers when cooking gluten-containing and gluten-free fare.
Food allergies can range from mild to severe. Signs of food allergies may include, per the FDA:
- Flushed skin or rash
- Tingling or itchy sensation in the mouth
- Face, tongue or lip swelling
- Vomiting and/or diarrhea
- Abdominal cramps
- Coughing or wheezing
- Dizziness and/or lightheadedness
- Swelling of the throat and vocal cords
- Difficulty breathing
- Loss of consciousness
If you experience any of the above symptoms, stop eating the food immediately and call 911 as a serious allergic reaction known anaphylaxis may develop that can be potentially fatal.
3. It Can Affect How Well Your Food Gets Cooked
If grease and particles of food accumulate in the heating element, it can also affect your appliance's optimal performance. Indeed, all that gunk "could prevent the air fryer from working as well as it should," Shumaker says.
But if your fryer isn't functioning effectively, it may leave your food undercooked, creating a major food safety issue. Once again, eating raw or undercooked foods — especially meat and poultry — can increase your chances of foodborne illnesses.
Not to mention, your grubby gadget can also spoil the flavor of your food and produce unpleasant odors.
4. It Can Potentially Start a Fire
When you skip scrubbing your air fryer, excess grease can gather in the nooks and crannies and bits of food can get caught under the basket. And both can burn, causing your fryer to start smoking or even catch fire.
"If you notice a foul smell or see smoke while the air fryer is in use, the basket and heating element definitely need to be cleaned," Shumaker says.
How Often Should You Clean Your Air Fryer?
Greasy pans are a pain to clean. That's one of the reasons why air fryers are so convenient: They cut out a good amount of grease from the cooking equation and minimize the post-meal mess.
Still, while there's less mess to mop up, this doesn't mean you don't have to clean your appliance regularly.
In fact, the "best practice is to wash after each use," Shumaker says. Frequently scrubbing will reduce your risk of foodborne illness and cross-contact between foods and lengthen the life of your machine.
How to Clean Your Air Fryer
Though proper maintenance will vary by machine — always pay attention to the manufacturer's instructions — Shumaker shares some simple steps to keep your average air fryer sanitary:
- First, let your appliance cool down.
- Soak removable parts in warm, soapy water to help loosen any stuck-on food particles, and then gently scrub to get rid of debris.
- After soaking, sanitize the removable parts. If they are dishwasher-safe, place them in the dishwasher on the hottest setting.
- If dishwashing is not an option, mix 1 tablespoon of unscented bleach with 1 gallon of water and soak the parts in this mixture.
- Wipe down the inside of the fryer with a damp rag. Avoid using anything harsh like steel wool, as this can harm the heating element.
So, Is It Bad to Never Clean Your Air Fryer?
Considering it can increase your risk for foodborne illnesses and cause cross-contact with food allergens, a filthy air fryer can wreak a whole lot of havoc on your health.
Even if you're as healthy as a horse, at the very least, a dirty device won't work as well or last as long (think: you'll need to replace it more frequently, which can cost a pretty penny).
Bottom line: It's in your best interest to put in the proper care and keep your air fryer clean and free of grime.