“Almost half of Gen Z are ‘germaphobes’ and handwash 10-times or more daily,” the New York Daily Post reported in an incredulous tone. The finding is from a survey conducted by College Rover, which polled more than 1,000 college-age Americans. “While 47% said that they wash their hands five to 10 times a day, a whopping 32% — nearly a third — lather up between 11 and 20 times each day,” the Post article said.
On X, formerly known as Twitter, people were considerably less taken aback by the statistics.
The tweeted-out story from the publication also garnered a community note: “Washing hands 10+ times a day is recommended for hygiene & reducing virus & bacteria spread. CDC advises washing hands before/after eating & post-toilet use.”
Katrine Wallace, an epidemiologist and faculty member at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Public Health, agreed that 10-plus times a day is no cause for alarm.
“I am not sure why washing hands 5-10 times a day was a red flag to people,” she told HuffPost. “There are many situations where you should definitely wash your hands, regardless of the frequency.”
Wallace’s list of hand-cleaning situations is about a mile long (which is not to say unreasonable): You should wash your hands before preparing food, before eating, when caring for someone who is vomiting or has diarrhoea, before treating a cut or wound, after using the toilet, after changing diapers, after blowing your nose or sneezing/coughing into your hands, after touching an animal or its waste, after handling pet food and after touching garbage.
Simply put, hand-washing is determined by circumstances.
“Hand-washing with soap is one of the best ways to protect yourself and those around you from getting sick,” she added. “It is incredibly effective at preventing the spread of respiratory and diarrhoeal infections.”
Generally, there’s really no concern about over-washing your hands, said William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.
“You are not going to wash away good bacteria,” he told HuffPost. “Recall that we in health care sanitise our hands dozens of times daily during our routine patient care activities. If anything, I am pleased that Gen Z has learned lessons from the pandemic ― these will help protect them and their families going forward.”
He added: “I’m not concerned about folks who are committed hand washers; I’m concerned about the many who still avoid hand-washing.” (One pre-pandemic study cited by the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention found that 69% of men don’t wash their hands after using a public bathroom. Ick!)
The only real physical concern with frequent hand-washing is that it can remove natural oils in the skin, leaving them dry and chapped, said Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada.
“With the loss of natural oils, you lose the barrier function of the skin, and you might tend to get very dry skin or even irritated, inflamed to dry skin with dermatitis,” she told HuffPost.
Using emollient hand lotions and moisturisers ― products that cover the skin with a protective film to trap in moisture ― can help prevent chapping.
“People who have to wash their hands all the time at work, like myself in the hospital, know you have to moisturise your hands and try to replace that skin barrier,” Saxinger said.
The survey also found that 45% of Gen Zers are “hyperconscious of germs.” But given the fact that we just came out of a global pandemic, the infectious disease specialists we spoke to think that’s reasonable.
“I think that we have to take into account what people have been through; this has been a global trauma,” Saxinger said. “I think people are kind of finding their zone of comfort and that there’s going to be a wider range of normal behavior for a period of time.”
When is frequent hand-washing a sign of something more troubling?
Despite all this, excessively worrying about cleanliness and getting sick and constantly hand-washing can be signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), but it’s different from regular hand-washing in many ways, according to Shanna Kramer, a Portland, Oregon, therapist who specialises in treating OCD and anxiety disorders.
“Hand-washing only becomes problematic when thoughts and behaviours become disruptive to our daily lives,” she said. “So germophobia is a real thing and is defined as an extreme or irrational fear of dirt or contamination.”
People who experience fear or “what if” thoughts that accompany excessive or ritualised behaviours may have contamination OCD, Kramer said.
“Contamination OCD isn’t just about avoiding dirt and germs,” she explained. “It can also include intrusive thoughts about harming oneself or others, feelings of disgust and worry about environmental contaminants, like household chemicals, asbestos or lead.”
These thought processes and behaviours are complex and deep seated, which is why it’s frustrating to experts and those who suffer from OCD that germophobia is usually talked about in a glib way. (“Oh, don’t bother inviting Jackie to that new restaurant unless it has an ‘A’ in the window from the health department; she’s a total germophobe.”)
“Like many words, ‘germophobe’ has evolved to be stigmatizing and dismissive,” Kramer said. “True germophobes experience obsessive, intrusive thoughts about harm, contamination and even death.”
These worries can significantly effect one’s daily living and may lead to social isolation, agoraphobia, depression, family conflict, cracked or bleeding hands, excessive dry or peeling skin, and, oddly enough, infections, Kramer said.
“Not everyone who experiences worry about getting sick will fall into this category, but it’s best to err on the side of caution when applying these terms to yourself or others,” she said.
Anyone who’s worried that their fears about cleanliness are starting to take over or dictate their life should go to the International OCD Foundation website to learn more about OCD and determine if it’s worth seeking an evaluation from a professional.
“The nature of OCD and contamination and, in particular, washing symptoms can make it tricky to overcome it on your own,” said Jonathan Abramowitz, a clinical psychologist and author of “Getting Over OCD: A 10 Step Workbook for Taking Back Your Life” and “The Family Guide to Getting Over OCD.”
Abramowitz said the most successful treatment involves having a therapist coach you through “exposure and response prevention,” which means gradually but deliberately confronting situations that provoke fears of germs or contamination. From there you can gradually reduce hand-washing behaviour.
“This teaches the person that the washing behaviour isn’t necessary to stay safe,” he said. “Basically, people learn that the anxiety over contamination will subside on its own eventually, without the need to ‘wash it away.’”