For many years now, there have been two schools of thought when it comes to hygiene and health. There are those who say that you can never be too clean, and that there’s no risk to the health of either yourself or your family in making sure that every surface in your home – and on your body – is always scrubbed clean. Opposed to those people are the scientists and members of the public who have long maintained that a little dirt is a good thing, and that an obsession with keeping everything too clean is what’s responsible for rises in the recorded cases of allergies and asthma. The latter theory is considered to be so credible that the BBC ran a report speculating that taking too many showers is actually bad for our health.
Now, scientists and researchers are convinced that they’ve finally been able to make a conclusive decision on the matter – and the facts are in favor of those who prefer to wash everything twice a day.
The Inoculation Theory
For the proponents of the ‘dirt is good’ theory, their assumption rested on the idea that people contracted certain illnesses and allergies because of a lack of natural defenses within their bodies. By washing too often, people were stripping bacteria away from their homes and their skin, which would otherwise help to prevent infections and illnesses from occurring in the first place. This is similar to the basic principle of vaccinations – a small sample of a virus or disease is introduced to the body, and the body successfully works out a way to defend against it. Then, if ever exposed to a more substantial source of the same illness or disease, it already knows how to prevent it from taking hold, and immunity is developed.
While there may be a lot to be said for that in terms of the way illnesses develop – and can be prevented – within the body, the same doesn’t necessarily hold true with threats that come from dirt on the outside. It would be more accurate to compare the situation with a mobile casino than an immunization, but substituting illness for money. In an casino, you put money into a mobile slots game repeatedly until something inevitably comes out at the other end. You’d be glad of this in a casino, because you’re putting in money, and you’re getting money at the end of it. If you’re lucky, the money that comes out is more than the money that goes in. With illness, exposing yourself to small samples of a disease in dirt around the home repeatedly will build up a reserve of infection just like the money builds up in the mobile slots game, but when it comes out the other end, all you’re getting is a return on the illness you’ve been exposing yourself to. Unlike the casino example, all you’ll be hoping is that you get out less than you put in!
Good And Bad Microbes
According to the scientists who have published the latest research, much of the confusion is based on a misconception about microbes. Much like bacteria, microbes can either be harmless or harmful, and it’s actually a lack of exposure to ‘good’ microbes which is to blame for rising allergy figures among the young. They cite a change in the habits of children playing as the likely cause of the phenomenon – increasingly, children sit at home playing with tablets or video games instead of playing outside with friends, where they would be exposed to a diverse range of microbes and build up natural immunity over time. That doesn’t, however, mean that they should avoid a bath or a shower when they get home.
Far from enhancing health, the experts responsible for issuing the warning say that not enough people clean thoroughly enough – or in the right manner – to give themselves the best possible chance to avoid getting sick. In a range of suggested measures, they list better attention to surfaces in the kitchen being a particular priority because e.coli and listeria can develop there if the remnants of food are left unattended for too long.
The temperatures at which clothing is washed are also a cause for concern. Professionals now advise that all bedding and towels should be washed at a temperature of at least 60C to completely ensure that any potentially harmful microbes or bacteria are destroyed.
The trigger for publishing the advice and the warning was a survey recently carried out on the United Kingdom, which came back with some troubling results. Two thousand people were asked their opinion on a number of matters pertaining to health, and almost a quarter of them agreed with the suggestion that maintaining a clean home was ‘not important’ on the grounds that being exposed to harmful germs is a vital part of helping a child to develop their immune system. Despite that, 40% of people asked thought that a child with muddy hands was a risk of spreading an infection or germs, which is inconsistent with the answer to the previous question.
In general, people who responded to the survey appeared to be focused on the wrong priorities. Areas like the floor and the toilet bowl were identified as high priorities for extensive cleaning, whereas in reality, they should be considered a low priority. Flushing a toilet is enough to dispense with the majority of germs. Washing dishcloths was listed as a much lower priority, but is vastly more important in combating infection because dishcloths are touched regularly during the preparation of food.
The Takeaway Advice
The advice issued by the professionals responsible for issuing the report and collecting the survey data is simple – hygiene processes that relate to eating food are far more important than those which don’t. Playing outside in mud won’t make a child ill, but not washing the mud off before they eat might. Not polishing the toilet bowl within an inch of its life likely won’t have any impact on your health or well-being whatsoever, but failing to wash your hands with soap after visiting the toilet carries a high risk of making you sick.
Washing yourself and all your utensils directly before meals will go a long way to ensuring that you stay healthy for the long term. And you’re free to take as many baths and showers as you wish!