Doctors Advise Striking a Balance Between Dirty and Hyper-Clean

Living with Germs

As advances in modern medicine are made and more antibacterial and sanitizing products are released, hygiene among people has improved. But doctors are concerned there may be such a thing as “too clean.”

Dr. Nectar Aintablian, infectious disease specialist and pediatrician at Tallahassee Primary Care Associates, believes hyper-cleanliness may compromise the immune system, especially in children. She says exposing children to normal household germs may strengthen their immune systems and benefit them in the long run.

While cleanliness should be maintained, it is possible to overdo it, says Aintablian. She cautions against obsessive cleanliness and warns that killing bacteria won’t always protect children from infections and viruses. 

“Hyper-cleanliness doesn’t always mean that you won’t be exposed to viruses, and what passes to kids are usually viruses,” Aintablian explains. 

The hygiene hypothesis, or “Old Friends” theory, suggests that people who live a more rural lifestyle and are exposed to different microbes due to their environment may be less likely to develop serious allergies, asthma, hay fever and atopic dermatitis, commonly known as eczema.

Dr. Daniel Van Durme, professor and chair at Florida State University College of Medicine and Department of Family Medicine and Rural Health director, says there are some important truths to the hygiene hypothesis.

“Increasingly, experts believe that we have gone too far in creating a germ-phobic society. We know that children who are raised on the farm or who have pets like cats and dogs tend to have less of these type of skin problems,” Van Durme adds.

Research suggests that some products used in an effort to be more sanitary contain a chemical, triclosan, which may do more harm than good. Studies have linked the germ-killing chemical to heart disease and muscle and hormone function. Many antibacterial products, mouthwashes, toothpastes and even children’s toys use the ingredient that is currently under investigation by Food and Drug Administration.

While the jury is still out on whether the product is helping or hindering, Van Durme advises people to be cautious when purchasing merchandise containing triclosan, which you can check for on the product label.

“The safety and efficacy of triclosan is questionable. As of today keep your eyes open because it may come out that it is harmful,” Van Durme stresses. “I certainly would advise against paying extra for toys that have antibacterial stuff that kills the germs — just clean the toy.”

Both doctors agree, the most effective tools in combating germs are regular soap, water and ethyl alcohol-based hand sanitizers. 

Rather than buying potentially harmful antibacterial products, Aintablian suggests increasing the frequency and duration of hand washing.

“The way you’re supposed to wash your hands is by spreading the soap and singing Happy Birthday twice, which is about 18 seconds. Most people will be done in 10 seconds,” Aintablian says.

Although some early exposure to certain microbes may positively affect children’s immune systems, physicians still urge parents not to become too lax when it comes to cleanliness. Deliberately being less hygienic could put families at risk of being exposed to other infectious diseases. 

“We’re really struggling in medicine to find the right balance. You don’t need to wipe down every countertop five times a day,” says Van Durme. Ditching your cleaning habits all together is not the answer, but finding a happy medium is key to living a healthy and happy life.

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