Apparently, the idea that being “too clean” is bad for your health is just a myth – that’s according to the conclusions of a recent report by the Royal Society for Public Health.
And if you’re a frazzled, busy parent, it’s the kind of conclusion that scares the living hell out of you. But maybe we don’t need to worry quite so much.
In the report, Too Clean Or Not Too Clean: The Case For Targeted Hygiene In Everyday Life, the RSPH looked at the public confusion between germs, dirt, and cleanliness – and proposed “targeted hygiene”, a handy tactic focused on cleaning the areas of the home most likely to contain harmful microbes or pathogens, rather than worrying about ‘dirt’.
The report has been reduced to headlines implying “there’s no such thing as being too clean” – but this doesn’t accurately sum up the findings. And, given the increasing problem of antimicrobial resistance, misinterpreting its message could be a real misstep.
Previously, what was known as the “hygiene hypothesis” stated that excessive hygiene was causing a rise in allergies because children weren’t being exposed to enough infectious illnesses.
The conclusions drawn from this RSPH report – in the media at least – make it sound like the the opposite is true, but there’s a lot more nuance than that.
The report says that “exposure to diverse mostly non-harmful microbes from other people, domestic animals and the natural environment is important to help build a healthy microbiome” – in other words, that going outside, interacting with people and playing in the dirt are all good things.
There are some microbes which are outright harmful, however (like those found in contaminated food, faeces, vomit and the equipment used to clean those things up). Hygiene around these is extremely important and extra care should be taken. That’s the difference.
Not getting sufficient microbial exposure isn’t a result of being too clean, the report states. Instead, it cites “urbanisation, access to clean water and food, caesarean sections rather than childbirths, and lifestyle changes such as bottle rather than breastfeeding, reduced sibling interaction, and reduced outdoor activity” as contributing factors.
So where should we be focusing our cleaning, especially if we live in a house with kids? The RSPH suggests cleaning areas like the floor and toilet less, and instead focusing our time and effort on areas at high risk of containing harmful microbes – like food preparation areas – and ensuring that hands are properly washed.
“Targeted hygiene” doesn’t involve keeping everything bleach-covered and spotless and ensuring nobody is ever exposed to any dirt – it’s more about minimising the chances of contracting and passing on infection.
Wash your hands after wiping your bottom and clean a chopping board after cutting raw meat on it – and make sure to do a really good job of both.
But at the same time, don’t bust your ass mopping the floor just because it looks a bit grubby. That’s what the report is saying.
So, In Summary...
“Getting outdoors and playing with friends, family and pets is great for exposure to ‘good bacteria’ and building a healthy microbiome (genetic material that is essential for development and immunity),” says professor Lisa Ackerley, RSPH trustee and food hygiene expert, ”but it’s also crucial that the public don’t get the wrong end of the stick – this doesn’t need to get in the way of good hygiene.”
In the right time and place, she adds, “targeted hygiene” is an effective way of preventing infection, but still exposes you to all the ‘good bacteria’ your body needs. “Good hygiene in the home and everyday life helps to reduce infections, is vitally important to protecting our children and reducing pressure on the NHS, and has a huge role to play in the battle against antibiotic resistance.”