Deciding whether to douse your home in heavy duty cleaner, or leave it purposefully on the messy side, can be a minefield for parents wanting to do the best by their children’s health. On the one hand you want to protect them from germs, on the other, you want to boost their immune systems.
New research suggests not being exposed to enough microbes - including bacteria and germs - early in life can trigger childhood leukaemia. The research, by Professor Mel Greaves of The Institute of Cancer Research, London, has sparked a wealth of articles suggesting over-cleaning your home can cause childhood cancer.
But Professor Sally Bloomfield, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, tells HuffPost UK a lot of these articles are missing the point; the study doesn’t actually mention cleaning.
“Hygiene is something so much more than cleanliness. General day-to-day cleaning - such as how often we clean the toilet or how often we clean the floor - has very little impact in terms of protecting us from disease,” she says.
So, what is the best course of action to keep your kids healthy?
Being exposed to microbes helps to keep our immune system healthy, by training our bodies to recognise what’s dangerous, what’s not, and how to react.
According to Professor Bloomfield, it’s beneficial for children to have as wide an exposure to different microbes as possible, while also maintaining good hygiene “at the times and places that matter” to protect them from illness.
“Good hygiene when you’re preparing raw food, when you’re using the toilet, when you’re disposing of rubbish and when you’re looking after your pets is important,” she explains. “All that involves is hand washing, keeping surfaces clean and all of the things most of us already do.”
Aside from following these basic premises, Professor Bloomfield recommends trying to adopt a lifestyle that is “not too clean”, rather than overcomplicating household chores that won’t have a big impact.
A major part of this is encouraging children to play outdoors. This doesn’t mean they have to go splashing in the mud - although this won’t hurt - but it means providing them with the opportunity to breathe in microbes from the environment.
“Outdoors there is a huge range of microbes, indoors there are a limited amount of microbes and they will be the ones that tend to build up indoors, such as our own microbes, our pets and our food,” Professor Bloomfield explains.
“The important thing is we expose children to the broadest range of microbes as possible - if they spend too much time indoors, a child doesn’t get that exposure.”
As well as allowing children to play outside, Professor Bloomfield points out that encouraging children to play with one another helps them to share useful microbes. “It’s also about children interacting with their parents and exchanging microbes when they’re being breastfed or cuddled,” she says.
All in all, you can stop stressing about whether you’re up to date with housework or not.
“The word ‘clean’ is muddying the waters,” says Professor Bloomfield. ”This business of clean or not clean in the home has very little relevance.”