Are we too clean for our own good?

By Andrea Karim on 17 November 2008 34 comments
Photo: Soil

A friend of mine has three daughters, all under 6 years old. Recently, she was at the supermarket with her youngest. Her daughter dropped her pacifier on the ground. My friend picked it up, wiped it on her shirt, and handed it back to her daughter.

An elderly gentleman approached her a few seconds later. Chuckling, he patted her child on the head. "This must not be your first kid, then," he said with a grin,

"Why do you say that?," my friend asked nervously.

"Well, with the first child, if they drop their binkie, you'd be more likely to boil it before letting your baby touch it again. By the time you get to your second, you get over it."

My friend smiled. "Yeah, that pretty much sums it up."

There are probably a few of you reading this who think my friend is a horrible mother. I can assure you that she is not. Yes, supermarket floors are dirty. Yes, her daughter was probably exposed to germs. But according to many scientists, germs may be exactly what we need more of.

Building up a healthy immune system is one of the most important things that we can do for our health. It's the reason that people try to make sure that their children get chicken pox at a young age; they hope to inoculate their babies against the disease, which is much more serious if experienced at an advanced age. Taking your kid to a Pox Party is like a cheap vaccination. Viruses are serious things, and we believe in inoculating our kids against them, for the most part.

However, we don't feel the same way about bacteria and other bugs. In fact, we do our utmost to avoid contact with bacteria, and when we do experience it, we zap the hell out of it with antibiotics and antibacterial ointments. The result? Our bodies don't know how to deal with bacterial infections, and the bacteria that we do come into contact with is getting stronger and stronger as we continually do our damndest to kill it off. Not only that, but when an immune system with too much free time on its hands comes into contact with innocuous but foreign substances (like cat dander), it over reacts, causing us to suffer from allergies.

You've probably heard that certain conditions that seem endemic to Americans, such as hayfever, asthma, and food allergies, are not as common in the developing world. People infected with hookworm, for instance, have fewer asthma attacks and allergies (the hookworms trigger and immune system response, it is thought, that causes the body to concentrate on the worms, rather than triggering wheezing asthma attacks). By the way, do not Google "hookworm" unless you want to spend the rest of the day fighting the heebie jeebies.

The point is, exposure to other germs, especially those found in soil, are beneficial in preventing all kinds of autoimmune diseases. With that in mind, consider letting go of your germ phobic ways. You'll save some money on the plethora of cleaning supplies that promise to nuke every single bacterium within a hundred-mile radius, and just may find that your kids grow up healthier.

  • There's certainly nothing wrong with washing your hands, but skip the anti-bacterial soaps. Also, hand sanitizer is good in a bind, but if you apply it several times a day (and don't work in a hospital), you might have bigger issues than germs.
  • Nobody wants salmonella poisoning, but using the appropriate tools when preparing raw chicken (plastic or glass cutting boards that can be run through the dish washer) and cleaning the kitchen with normal soap and water afterwards can do the trick - no need to break out the Clorox wipes.
  • believes that Americans should eat sh*t and NOT die. Provocative, but also, ew. They also mention the importance of breast feeding as a method for transferring antibodies from mother to child, even though most mothers today also lack crucial antibodies, having also been raised in sterile environments.
  • Let your kids get dirty. They will survive. I suppose it's possible, but it's fairly uncommon to hear of children who have been hospitalized because they accidentally ingested a little dirt.
  • Ladies, your ladybits are self-cleaning, like an expensive oven! Unless it has been recommended by your gynecologist, do not feel the need to rinse them out from the inside (click here to see a really odd add for Lysol ladybit cleaner). Remember, douchebag is a better insult than it is an invention. Too much rinsing will actually CAUSE infections.
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Guest's picture

It's odd that people seem to have lost their sanity over sanitizing. This is a nice post that sums up why a little dirt isn't all that bad, and can be a good thing.

Guest's picture
Peter T

The immune system of healthy children and adults is well equipped to fight off most germs. It had to, otherise, early humankind wouldn't have survived. On the other hand, early humankind didn't have hospitals with their intentional collection of sick and vulnerable people, and neither commercial kitchen with their possibilities to spread bacterias widely. We should leave disinfectants to hospitals and commercial kitchens, they need them.

We keep our home reasonably clean, especially the dishes to avoid food poisoning, but are happy to have a cat, also as a germ carrier - our kids should be exposed to and fight off germs from an early age. They have stayed relatively healthy, except one winter in a childcare for babies that couldn't let the babies out - the infections were rampant there. Again, childcare is not something early humans had to deal with, where the happy germs could easily from one young host to the next. Childcare must put more care on cleaning.

Guest's picture

Oh Andrea- I love it!

"Remember, douchebag is a better insult than it is an invention."

My husband used to look at me sideways when I would make a sandwich directly on the kitchen countertop with out aid of some kind o'sanatation until I explained to him that the only people who I knew that used that stuff were always sick. He thought about it for a moment and agreed.

He still doesn't make a sandwich directly on the counter-but he has stopped harrassing me about it!

Thanks for a great article.

Guest's picture

I've always thought that Americans are way overly concerned with hygiene and food safety. I shower 2-3 times a week, and leave my cheese out on the counter for several hours and don't die. Actually, I managed to not get sick AT ALL for four years straight, until last year when I started teaching high school kids and got sick again.

Guest's picture

Oh, and I don't smell, even though I work out and ride my bike to work.

Guest's picture

All I can say is "duh." It's the same as getting a shot. Your body learns to fight off small doses of baddies so it knows what to do to a real threat. I've been trying to explain this to my wife for years with very little success.

It seems to be almost like politics. People are so deeply entrenched in what they believe that they won't listen to any alternatives.

Guest's picture

Another example is westerners traveling to developing counties, if they eat street food so many get sick, it's simply because we haven't developed the resistance the locals have. While we are out there fighting off bugs with medicines the strains it doesn't work on get stronger while we get weaker.

Linsey Knerl's picture

I just check out the Flickr ad... "No greasy aftereffect."  Good to know!


Andrea Karim's picture

For serious, you. When was that ever a problem? I shudder to think of the things that women have been forced to do to themselves over the years to prevent their husbands from... locking them out or whatever. :)

Guest's picture

In many other not-so-developed countries, they don't use pacifiers also, so there is one less thing to worry about as well. There are significant number of crutches that developed world has which may be another problem as well.

Guest's picture

Thanks for this awesome article. As women (and mothers) the media preys on our worries and determination to protect our children by pummeling us with ads that suggest our children are constantly at risk of contracting disease. Thank you for counter-balancing this. And I love your last point too - this is another way we have been sold products by being told our bodies are inherently unclean.

Guest's picture

When I was a new mom, I put my daughter's new teething ring in the bottle sterilizer. The result was "art" and I keep it by my desk to make me laugh and as a reminder to relax.

Guest's picture

I haven't had a cold since 1997 and I'm the only person I ever knew who had a bunch of allergy tests that showed no allergies to Anything. So you probably don't want to see my house.

Guest's picture

I've been wondering this very same thing for a while, particularly applied to brushing your teeth. From what (admittedly little) I know, it's the sugars and meat that destroy our teeth and breath. I wonder if a person were to eat a primitive diet, would they need to brush their teeth? I also think that fibrous foods (e.g. celery) are natural flossing agents, getting between your teeth but relatively easily removed, taking with it the gunk that was there. Anyone think I'm on to something, or just crazy?

Guest's picture

Remember, douchebag is a better insult than it is an invention.

I heard of a woman who had a practical reason to douche. If she had unprotected sex with her boyfriend in the afternoon, and wanted to hide the evidence, she'd douche before her husband got home. She knew douching was unhealthy, and tried to avoid it, so her preference was to either have sex with the boyfriend early in the morning, use a condom if she met him later in the day, or a few other alternatives. Not cheating would have been another solution too, but she didn't like that answer very well.

(I am not the woman or either of the men described above, but I knew the woman.)

Andrea Karim's picture

Normally, and by "normally", I mean "lately, as I have been in a foul mood and I hate everything and the economy sucks and please fetch me a gin and tonic", I would ignore or even unpublish a comment about douching for the sake of covering up an infidelity, but I think I'll leave it up so as to make an example of it, and also because I love talking about stupid things that people do when having sex. 

Douching after having unprotected sex is a great way to send sperm flying towards your uterus. Just as an FYI to anyone who happens to stumble across this little conversation.

Guest's picture

There's a reason life expectancy in 1908 was 49 years, as opposed to the 78 years an American can expect to live today. It's called "sanitation."

People got sick and died because they and their environments weren't clean. Go back to not washing and letting the kids suck on stuff that fell on the floor in a dirty public place, and we can expect our life expectancy to drop.

I agree that running around rubbing antibacterial wipes on everything insight is a silly overreaction created by marketing campaigns. But bathing daily, brushing your teeth twice a day, and refraining from sticking a pacifier in your baby's mouth after the thing has been on a supermarket floor come under the heading of common sense.

You can take anything to ridiculous extremes.

Guest's picture
Anonymous Coward

There's a reason life expectancy in 1908 was 49 years, as opposed to the 78 years an American can expect to live today. It's called "sanitation."

Uh, wrong.
The leading causes of death in America at that time were Tuberculosis, Heart Disease, and Strokes.

People died at an early age back then because they had no way of treating things like heart attacks and stroke, not because they were wallowing in unsanitary conditions. In fact, it may have been more sanitary in 1908 since only 5% of people had indoor plumbing at the time. All that nasty stuff was out in the outhouse.

Guest's picture

I have a friend who has a self proclaimed germophobe neurosis. She doesn't like taking her kids places because of germs. She uses anti germ stuff everywhere but they do have a golden retriever. Anyway, the kids have asthma and are always getting sick - bronchitis, ear infections, strep, the little one had RSV, etc. When her kids get colds they usually become something serious. She didn't breastfeed the first but did the second for 6 months or so. My kids, when they get sick, it is generally a typical cold which runs it's course. I think between the 2 kids we've had 2-3 ear infections in the combined 10 years of life. We don't wash our hands nearly as much as we should and my son always has something in his mouth (6 yrs old). I kind of understand my friend's concern because her kids get so sick but what came first her anti germ campaign or the kids' poor immune system? Why are my kids generally more healthy? Is it better genes/immune system or the environment?

Myscha Theriault's picture

You know, my husband has made mention a few times of an article he read some time ago (in Nat Geo, I think) discussing basically what you said in this article. Only I think the focus of the piece was on farm kids versus kids that grow up in more sterile environments. The premise was what you are discussing here, that insulating kids from any exposure doesn't bode well for their immune system and allergy situation long term. Anyway, it's an interesting piece and timely for me as things are so chaotic here that I will listen to anything that makes me feel better about not having things "to rights" so to speak. Thanks for bringing this to the forefront.

Guest's picture

It's also important to remember that the constant use of anti-bacterials leads to super-bugs. If a product kills 99.99% of germs, that 0.01% lives on, multiplies, and in time, the antibiotic becomes useless.

Linsey Knerl's picture

From putting a binkie in their kids mouth after being on the floor.  Their little hands are much filthier than their pacifiers, believe me!  (especially if they are around other kids all day.)  Better chance of getting sick from your own carpeting than the super non-porous flooring of a big-box retailer.  Check out the 5-second rule study....

Guest's picture

I agree it annoys me when I see on TV ads that promise to kill 99% of germs and it shows someone wiping a child's highchair tray clean. It plays on parent's insecurities about germs.

I grew up in a era when there wasn't this craziness about germs and I survived.

But, I also think there are places where the strictest standards of hygiene have to be upheld i.e. hospitals, dentists, food establishments, etc.

Otherwise let kids get grubby and roll around in the mud. It won't kill them

Guest's picture

.. with most everything said above. In most cases, the chemicals used to eradicate household germs are more harmful than the germs they're eradicating. Especially to children.

I echo the sentiment about germophobe ironies - I know two of them, and both of them have kids who seem perpetually sick despite their neurotic efforts. In contrast, some of the happiest, healthiest kids we know come from homes where a little dust and clutter is always welcome.

Guest's picture

Not giving up my hand sanitizer, no matter what anybody here says!

I do agree that children should be allowed to get a little dirty and risk exposure, as it is necessary for their immune systems to get a workout and fully develop. However, as an adult, I am keeping the bottles of hand sanitizer at my desk and by my kitchen and bathroom sinks now and forever!

Guest's picture

Dar, I have to ask: why do you keep hand sanitizer next to your sinks? Proper hand washing would kill off any germs so why not just wash your hands at the sink instead of using the sanitizer?

Linsey Knerl's picture

When I worked at a busy office, I shared a phone with another receptionist.  The phone would get so grody from caked-on foundation.  Eewww.  I used to wipe down the phone at least twice a week.  That's where my OCD ends, though.


Guest's picture

I agree with this conversation so far as dirt and germs go. But I remember the time I saw a man who worked for ChemLawn go into a fast-food place for his lunch. He had on his rubber boots that undoubtedly still carried residue from his morning of spraying chemicals on people's lawns. He got his lunch and left. Anyone coming in afterward who maybe dropped a napkin, money or pacifier where he walked would pick up those lawn chemicals. So it's not always about 'germs.'

Myscha Theriault's picture

Speaking for myself, I still like to do this. Why? Several reasons, not the least of which is how often I need to wash my hands while cooking to get off batter before opening a new spice jar, after handling chicken and moving on to the salad, etc. If there is any time when I just need a little germ removal and not a full blown wash, my hands thank me for not drying them out anymore. Sometimes even lotion won't completely do the trick if I've been in the middle of a full blown holiday bake off.


Guest's picture

Interesting point Myscha. But aren't most hand sanitizers mostly alcohol? That's a pretty drying substance. And if you use an all natural soap (rather than a "soap" that is mostly detergent) your hands shouldn't dry out that much regardless of how often you are washing them.

Guest's picture

Soap (or non-soap based hand cleanser) and water for 30 seconds is the best way to get rid of germs for anyone who is well enough to be walking around in public. Antibacterials are really not necessary unless you're fighting sepsis. Furthermore, antibacterials do nothing for viruses.

You know all those people who die in the hospital from bacterial infections? Most of them are fighting off superbugs, or extremely resistant germs that cannot been killed off by garden-variety antibacterials.

Medical school ingrained in me that you shouldn't bring out the big guns unless you need them. Antibacterials for everyday use are overkill 99% of the time and actually may have detrimental effects. We use plain alcohol wipes for things like our stethoscopes and pens, but handwashing (and they have lotion next to every sink) is the biggest focus in limiting the spread of germs, both viral and bacterial.

I also consulted for a large metro public health department on pandemic influenza preparation-- you know what one of the biggest education efforts is? Teaching people simply to wash their hands with soap and water before eating, after using the bathroom, and after coughing/sneezing/blowing their nose. That's it. For all the fantastic medical technology we have today, sometimes the simplest solution is still the most effective.

Guest's picture

i hear it so much from people when i cheekily tell them i don't believe in germs that i begin to doubt myself. but, i've traveled in third world countries, it's not as insanely sterile in those places, and people still manage to live long healthy lives.

i also feel like this obsession with packaging and disposable stuff for the sake of being 'clean' is so wasteful, so unnecessary, and a huge strain on our landfills.

Guest's picture

Jenn, I totally did the same thing...put the teething ring in the bottle sterilizer. Glad I'm not the only one!

Guest's picture

I have two young children. People act like they will break. I don't worry about germs...we just don't get sick. I wash with gentle soaps, and water. Very rarely anything else. I breastfed the first for a little over a year, and will do the same for my daughter. My son has had two minor colds, and a short bout of the flu, the flu being strong enough to get my husband and I sick for the first time in eleven years. We grew up on dairy farms and I'm sure we injested a certain amount of dirt, and don't wash as well as they should all the time. We think if that is why we don't get sick when our friends do it was worth it.