Is there such a thing as too much?
Everywhere you look you are bombarded with ads or information about the latest cleaning products. These products can be used for anything from your home to body. There is no question that improvement in cleanliness and sanitation have dramatically decreased the presence and prevalence of diseases. However, with the emergence of superbugs, resurgence of some diseases and increase in other diseases, have our cleanliness habits gone too far in the other direction?
Hygiene is defined as a condition or practice that is conducive to maintaining health and preventing disease. This involves several types of efforts with cleaning being one of these. Cleanliness is the state or quality of being clean or being kept clean by removing dirt, wastes or unwanted things from the surface of objects using detergents and necessary equipment. The terms hygiene and cleanliness should not be used interchangeably. Think of it this way. Washing your hands after going to the bathroom or coming home after running errands is a good hygiene habit because it prevents the spread of germs. Showering daily even if you haven’t done anything that would cause you to be sweaty or dirty, but only because it is considered acceptable by society is a cleanliness habit. It feeds into our desire to fit to societal norms more than true health concerns.
Our skin is a selective barrier between the outside world and our internal organs. Basically, it serves as a wall between our body and the microbes in the environment. Until recently, our skin was left to its own devices. It wasn’t that long ago, the idea of being clean meant bathing once a week. In the 1880s, Procter and Gamble came up with a way of marketing a particular soap brand with the message that to appear acceptable in polite society, one needed to bathe more frequently than this. Their tactic worked in selling their brand and lead to several of their competitors following suit. This is evidenced by the fact that the amount of homes with a bathtub or shower increased significantly between the 1940s and 1960s. The idea of horizontal segmentation came out in the 1970s and further enhanced their sales. Horizontal segmentation is a marketing strategy that includes selling a wide variety of types within a brand to appeal to customers who have different tastes. The best way to understand this is think of your favorite soap brand. How many different fragrances does it come in? Is it for dry, oily or sensitive skin? This type of segmentation allowed the beauty industry to increase their annual worldwide sales to the billions of dollars and has most people showering at least once day and many others more than that because of daily workouts.
Scientists are beginning to understand that by using cleansing agents and beauty products so frequently we are actually changing the chemical makeup of our skin. Our skin is supposed have microscopic bacteria on it because this plays an important part in our body’s immune system. The chemical make-up of soaps and antibacterial cleansers, which are the rage right now, alter this bacteria level significantly. It removes the “good” bacteria that our body needs and allows “bad” bacteria to take its place. Also, when we wash our bodies with hot water and soap every day, we strip away the lipids, which are the cells that hold together our skin, causing our skin to become dry and crack decreasing its ability to function as a barrier. When this happens, the risk of exposure to chemicals, pollutants and germs increases. This fosters the possibility of having a reaction to irritants and allergens. This over use of beauty products, soaps and cleansers has led to increasing skin problems. In the 1940s, eczema was relatively rare in children and unknown in adults. Today, a quarter of children and a tenth of adults experience eczema. Unfortunately, people who have eczema are more likely to have other issues, like asthma and hay fever. The condition sensitive skin is also on the rise. This is when someone’s skin becomes overreactive, intolerant, itchy/painful and, sometimes, accompanied by a rash.
While some sanitary habits, such as removing garbage and sewage from cities and homes, is significant part of the reason Americans don’t get diseases that are still common in developing countries. The problem is as our focus on sanitary efforts has increased, so has the development of certain autoimmune disorders, which is when your immune system reacts against and damages normal tissue, such is the case with asthma, hay fever, allergies and inflammatory bowel diseases. The reason these disorders develop is thought to be linked to T cells of the immune system because one of their functions is to recognize and eliminate harmful microbes. When our immune systems aren’t exposed to bacteria, the T cells have not learned how to do this and overreact when they come into contact with things that wouldn’t be an issue for a typically functioning immune system. Scientists know that autoimmune disorders have a genetic component, so it is thought that a person’s genes and their exposure, or lack thereof, to microbes in their environment is what contributes to the development of autoimmune disorders.
In the late 1980s, the idea of the Hygiene Hypothesis came out and it is thought that exposure to infections as a child provides a good defense against allergies as an adult. An allergy is when our immune systems are confused and overreact to a harmless substance as if it is a major threat to our body. Since our current cleanliness habits remove the “good” bacteria from our skin, our immune systems are forgetting how to live with this type of bacteria. This causes our immune system to overreact when it comes into contact with it. Our immune system is essential to our development, physiology, metabolism, brain function and digestive system function.
Another problem is the active ingredient in antibacterial soap, triclosan, was originally developed as a pesticide in the 1960s and is still used for these purposes today. If it comes into contact with chlorine, like chlorinated tap water, it turns into chloroform gas, which is a known carcinogen. Unfortunately, it is in three quarters of all soaps, toothpastes and deodorants and has been shown to accumulate in fat tissue, is associated with estrogen disruption, triggers earlier onset of puberty and thought to be contributing to antibiotic resistance pathogens (superbugs). People who have high amounts of exposure to triclosan have more allergies and hay fever episodes. This is why using too much hand sanitizer or antibacterial soap does more harm than good and it has been found that soap and water is just as effective at preventing communicable diseases.
If you feel that you must shower daily, you don’t need to scrub your whole body with soap. If you have not got dirty, you should wash your groin, armpits and anywhere where you sweat significantly with mild soap and just rinse the rest of your body with water. Also, change your underwear daily. The best way to prevent diseases from spreading isn’t through excessive showering, but through proper handwashing, which should be done frequently. The best technique to wash your hands is to wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold) and then lather them with soap. It is essential to include the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails. You should scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. When you are done scrubbing, rinse your hands well under clean, running water and then dry them using a clean towel or allow them to air dry. If you need to turn off the running water or open a door to leave the bathroom, then use a paper towel to touch these surfaces. If you notice that your hands are becoming dry, be sure to apply lotion so they stay moisturized.
It is thought that in addition to correcting our cleanliness habits, we should be eating a varied diet that contains a great deal of produce, exercising in nature rather than the gym and not being afraid to get dirty. When it comes to cleaning our houses, we shouldn’t be focused on excessive cleaning or doing an extreme deep cleaning once a week. It needs to be something that is incorporated into our lives daily. For example, clean any surfaces that come into contact with raw meat immediately, keeping in mind that as long as you’re thorough, soap and water is just as affective as antibacterial cleaning agents, but waiting to clean a surface that has come into contact with raw vegetables is ok to wait until after you are done eating. The towel that you use in the kitchen to dry dishes or the counter should be changed frequently—depending on usage, it might need to be swapped daily. Also, it is important to change bed linen, bath towels and pajamas once a week. Don’t share personal items, such as towels, sheets, razors, clothing or athletic equipment. When going to the bathroom, close the lid of the toilet before flushing or bacteria from inside the toilet gets spread to other parts of the bathroom. Instead of using antimicrobial cleaning products, use vinegar because this allows the “good” bacteria to survive.
It isn’t just individual cleanliness habits that need to change, but things need to change in the public health sector. Widespread use of purified water, higher levels of pollution and overuse of antibiotics have contributed to this process of our immune systems inability to function properly. We know antibiotics upset the “good” bacteria in our bodies, which can actually make us sicker. What is interesting to note is that vaccines don’t have the same interaction with the immune system as antibiotics. An increasing amount of studies have shown that children who are exposed to more bacteria at an earlier age by not growing up in excessively clean environments have less incidence of asthma, allergies, bowel disease and even some types of anxiety/depression as adults. This is the result of the child’s immune system learning what to react to and what not to. Also, currently being studied is the possibility if adult immune systems have the ability to “reset” if they are exposed to certain microorganisms. This would greatly reduce the number of allergies and autoimmune disorders.
The key to having a good immune system and being clean is finding a balance. It is essential to our health that our immune system functions efficiently and effectively. When we are too clean, we hinder its ability to do this, which only hurts ourselves in the long run. Rather than focusing on being super clean, we should be focusing on practicing proper hygiene techniques and implementing them when appropriate. It is possible to be clean and healthy!