Is Pre-Washed Lettuce Safe to Eat?

Even when they're labeled "ready to eat," pre-washed salad greens can contain harmful chemicals—and probably aren't even totally clean. Here's what we recommend.

Pre-washed salad greens are about as easy as it gets. Whether it’s crunchy lettuce wraps or a delish layered salad, you’re guaranteed to have dinner on the table without having to buy a head of lettuce; hack it into chunks; and wash, spin, and dry each leaf. With many pre-washed greens proudly proclaiming that they’re “ready to eat” or “triple-rinsed,” we can trust that they’re clean and safe…right?

Is the convenience too good to be true?

Unfortunately, it might be. Just like these common cooking myths, the idea of “pre-washed” lettuce isn’t as flawless as it seems. Recent research reveals that companies aren’t just rinsing the leaves in water—they’re using chemicals like bleach, which contains chlorine.

So, pre-washed greens are full of chemicals

Why is the rinsing agent for leaves so harsh? It turns out the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) actually encourages using bleach because it kills off E.coli and salmonella in greens. Unfortunately, traces of the strong cleaners will linger on your lettuce and make it into your mouth if you’re not careful. Since bleach—even diluted in water—is toxic in high quantities, it’s best to re-wash your salad components yourself before you dig in. (Here’s our guide to easily cleaning up produce.)

The real kicker here? It seems that chemically washing the lettuce isn’t all that effective. The University of California – Riverside performed a study that showed that only 10 percent of bacteria is removed with this bleach solution, which means that most of what the bleach is trying to remove from your spinach still makes it all the way to your kitchen. (The study only reported on baby spinach, but it makes us wary of any pre-washed salad greens.)

The takeaway

The troubling fact is, pre-washed or unwashed, grocery store produce has bacteria and traces of pesticides and chemicals used to grow and ship foods. The pre-washed stuff isn’t worse than the unwashed stuff, but it’s no better, so don’t get all comfortable about it.

The best solution? Wash all your grocery produce yourself. We like to use a mixture of water and vinegar in a first wash, and then rinse with plain cold water. (Then make sure your storage methods keep the lettuce in tip-top shape.)

Hungry for lettuce? These recipes are anything but boring.

Ideas for Your Clean Greens
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Emma B. Kumer
Emma interned for Taste of Home in 2017 and then continued freelancing there during college. Post college, she worked with Reader’s Digest as a digital visual assistant full time before becoming a motion designer at The Washington Post. There, she continues honing her craft of digital storytelling on social media platforms. She’s also been a tutorial writer for Adobe and a freelance music video animator. Outside of work, Emma loves running marathons, attending concerts and creative writing.