Welcome to Science on My Side, the part of the show where I actually back up stuff I say with studies and articles!
I used to be a self proclaimed germaphobe. A job at a veterinarian office, two children, and some scientific articles later, that tendency has lost much of its previous intensity (but don’t get me started in on chemicals ^_~). Being the logic and science loving person that I am, when my children asked why they got sick, I told them about viruses and bacteria.
It didn’t take long before I noticed that they seemed overly concerned about their microscopic housemates. I had to sit them down again and explain that not all bacteria are bad, that the boys share their bodies with millions of helpful bacteria. I told them that using too much antibacterial stuff kills the good bacteria with the bad, which could actually make them more susceptible to infections. That might seem a little heavy for the then 5 and 7 year olds, but they got the idea. Now, when my youngest says grace, he says, “Dear Lord, please let our food have only good bacteria and no bad bacteria. Amen.”
It seems that our current culture is saturated in germ fear. Hand-sanitizer is everywhere, and I’m happy to use it too. The reality, however, is that washing hands for before a meal or after a germy activity is totally adequate. Most of us don’t even need anti-bacterial soap! Wait, no really, stay with me here for a minute. I know that sounds like heresy, but I’ve got science on my side. A fat lot of good that does against good old fashion ingrained fear, but eventually, habits and thoughts can change. They did for me.
If you go to the first purple box in this link from the CDC you’ll see multiple studies sited to document that there is no added benefit to washing with antibacterial soap (unless you are a health care official). Additionally, there have been studies that show a link in the use of triclosan, the agent in anti-bacterial soaps, with bacteria developing resistance. So, there are no real benefits to using antibacterial soaps and possible drawbacks.
The study that made me the saddest was actually the last one referenced for that purple box in the above link. It was a double blind study done on households using all antibacterial products (hand, laundry, cleaning, ect) and households using products with no antibacterial chemicals. After 48 weeks, in which the households experienced everything from runny noses and fevers to vomiting and conjunctivitis, the study concluded that the risk of transmission was the same whether the cleaner used was antibacterial or not. Why should this make me sad? Because I love those Lysol wipes! They make me feel secure when one of my people is sick. The reality is that the security is all in my head. I could be using vinegar on my knobs and toilet and save myself money while taking care of just as many microbes. Check that out here.
So, there are no real benefits to using antibacterial soaps and possible drawbacks.
Not to mention, there are the terrifying studies that show that cleaner houses and environments may be leading to a rise in allergies and asthma in children. Whether it’s because our robust immune systems get bored if they don’t have interesting things to investigate and decide to attack things like fur and pollen, because of a lack of exposure to those things in the first place, or because we don’t enough contact with bacteria in general, cleanliness is apparently next to sneeziness. I’m not saying to let our houses get filthy (I, for one, would self implode). I’m just saying you can give yourself permission to miss a week or to not pass out in fear when little Johny eats a handful of dirt.
One last thing before I sign off of the subject: for those of you that this passes normal cultural germaphobia and falls under OCD, for those that three washes later still feel like your hands are contaminated, and for those whose cracked skin is a testament to the scalding water and many washes- it’s unlikely that reading a couple studies will help that fade. Telling yourself that your hands are already clean is not going to diminish the compulsion anymore than a dieter telling themselves that they have eaten all their calories will have a diminished desire to eat cake. It might induce guilt, but it won’t help the behavior. And you don’t need the guilt. Wash your hands again, tell yourself it’s not you, it’s an obsessive compulsive behavior, plan to talk about having had a hard week with OCD with your therapist, and continue on with your day. (Yep I’ve got an article for that advice too.)