Are you too clean?
Is the 5-second rule too strict?
Should you ditch your air filter?
Are you hurting your immune system by washing your hands EVERY time you use the bathroom?
OK, that last one is over the line. You should definitely wash your hands every time you use the bathroom. But you don’t have to use antibacterial soap AND apply hand sanitizer.
There is concern that being too clean can damage your immune system.
“There is strong evidence that our immune systems are being negatively impacted by the overuse of hygienic products such as anti-bacterial soap, hand sanitizers and air filters,” says Dr. Maryana Yevtukh, a family medicine doctor at Aurora Medical Center in Kenosha, Wis. “Our immune system is educated when we are very young. There is research to show that early exposures to a wide range of different bacteria, viruses, pollens and animal dander can positively educate the immune system.”
The “hygiene hypothesis” says that while our developed world protects us from many bacteria and pathogens, we may have gone too far and aren’t teaching our immune systems what it should attack and what it should tolerate.
The hygiene hypothesis is supported by studies showing that children living with higher amounts of pathogens, such as in developing countries, on farms, in homes with pets or in homes with multiple siblings, have decreased rates of allergies and autoimmune diseases.
Dr. Yevtukh says everyone, especially parents of babies and small children, should try to find a balance between good hygiene and allowing yourself and your children to be exposed to bacteria and other pathogens – in other words, let them get a little dirty sometimes.
“The first few years of a child’s life are vital to the formation of his or her immune system,” Dr. Yevtukh says. “I don’t recommend the routine use of antibacterial soap or hand sanitizer for healthy children. Certainly, I recommend washing hands with soap and water in situations like after using the bathroom, being around someone who was sick, handling food, after coughing or sneezing or touching animal food or waste.”
Being exposed to bacteria means a child could get sick, Dr. Yevtukh says. We all see it when a child first starts going to daycare or starts school after having the summer off.
“The immunity that a child receives from the mother fades by about six months. After that, babies often get illnesses as they build up their immune systems,” she said. “It’s estimated that babies get six to 10 cold in the first year of their life, and that number is higher in children who attend daycare.”
Being too clean may also be damaging the human microbiome, the array of micro-organisms that live on our body and are vital to human life, Dr. Yevtukh says. A diverse, healthy microbiome is needed for our immune system to properly function, and high levels of hygiene can cause microbiome dysfunction.
About the Author
Heather Collier works in Advocate Aurora Health’s public affairs and marketing department. She is based in Milwaukee.