When it comes to home hygiene, we get a lot of mixed messages. Alarmist advertising encourages us to bleach everything in sight, and stockpile antibacterials in preparation for the next army of germs to attack the kitchen counter. Yikes.
But there’s also a growing ‘cleansing reduction’ movement who embrace the ‘less is more’ approach, and point to the increasing body of evidence that suggests overzealous cleanliness might be bad for our skin, health, and environment.
At Mother Dirt, we’re right behind the idea that ‘a little dirt don’t hurt’, but where is the line between too clean and not clean enough? A moldy bathroom is not a good look.
We want to be hygienic and protect ourselves from harmful germs, but we also know that creating an environment that’s too sterile can limit our exposure to good bacteria, which in turn compromises our microbiome and immune system.
We need to find the sweet spot on the spectrum of clean.
The hygiene hypothesis: is your home too clean?
In the late 1980s, epidemiologist David Strachan theorized that higher standards of household cleanliness and lower exposure to early childhood infections was limiting children’s immune system development.1 According to his ‘hygiene hypothesis’, an overly clean home environment could contribute to children being exposed to fewer of the helpful microorganisms that support a healthy immune system, leaving them less able to fight off infection. A study conducted in 2015 further supports that, concluding that families who hand-washed dishes had less instances of allergic diseases in children than families who use machine dishwashing. The hypothesis being that the hand-washed dishes helped induce tolerance via increased microbial exposure.2
However, the idea that we’re ‘too clean’ has been challenged as an oversimplification, with some scientists suggesting that ‘microbial hypothesis’3 would be a better description than ‘hygiene hypothesis’. After all, good hygiene is vitally important for infection control, so it’s confusing to suggest hygiene is in some way also responsible for infection.
But research continues to confirm a protective effective of exposure to certain kinds of microbes and bacteria. Protecting ourselves from the harmful ones keeps us from getting sick, but in stripping our homes of all bacteria, we could be missing out on exposure to the helpful microorganisms that support a thriving microbiome.
So the problem is not that we’re too clean – it’s that we’re ‘losing contact with the right kind of dirt.’4 It’s a biodiversity problem.5
Good hygiene vs good bacteria
Hygiene is about more than being clean. According to the World Health Organization, it’s about the steps we take to maintain health and protect against disease.6 If you work in a healthcare environment, the high turnover of patients with different infections means viruses can spread more easily, and so it’s often appropriate to use bleach, disinfectant and other sterilizing products to keep everyone safe.
But we don’t need such an aggressive approach to clean our homes.
In fact, many home cleaning products do more harm than good – there’s evidence to suggest some of the ingredients in common air fresheners, soaps, detergents and scented candles contain toxic compounds and can create indoor pollution.7
Antibacterial products are increasingly common, but the problem with these is they kill off the helpful microbes as well as the dangerous ones. And what’s more, as they’re used more frequently, they become less effective, and the bacteria they seek to eliminate become resistant.8 This is one of the reasons why, in 2016, the FDA banned 19 antibacterial additives found in many shop-bought soaps.9
Sally Bloomfield, chair of the International Scientific Forum on Home Hygiene, says that to tackle germs, ‘hygiene measures should be targeted where and when necessary’.10 We shouldn’t be cleaning constantly, but should focus on cleaning the right things at the right time, using the right kind of products.
We should wash our hands when we prepare raw food, take out the rubbish or after using the toilet, but we don’t need antibacterial handwash for that.11 Simple soap and water are the best defense against germs.12
Everyday tips to find balance between too clean and not clean enough
If you’re looking to cut down on products and avoid harsh disinfectants and detergents, there are loads of biome-friendly alternatives for healthy home hygiene that you most likely already have in your pantry. Here are the most effective and versatile items for easy cleaning:
- Baking soda: You most likely know that baking soda helps keep your fridge smelling fresh, now try using it in the rest of your home to absorb musty odors, or use it to clean your kitchen, bathroom, or deodorize your rugs and furniture.
- Castile soap: Incredibly versatile, effective yet mild, this gets almost any job done! From floors to laundry, this will tackle anything with ease.
- White vinegar: The acid in this is amazing at cutting through grease, it removes mildew and odors and will make your floors shine.
- Corn starch: Don’t have baking soda? Try this handy and inexpensive powder that can not only clean your home top to bottom, it’s great at polishing silver!
- Lemons: This natural disinfectant will not only give you sparkle and shine, it will make your home smell fresh and fabulous.
The great thing is, you don’t have to give up using store bought products. Check out this reference guide by MADESAFE, with great product recommendations and tips on having a green and clean home. You could also try a ‘less is more’ approach with targeted, timely cleaning. It’s all about finding the right balance where clean comes with healthy.
1Emily Courtney, Hyperbiotics. The Hygiene Hypothesis: How Clean is Too Clean?
2Bill Hesselmar, Anna Hicke-Roberts, Goran Wennergren, Allergy in Children in Hand Versus Machine Dishwashing
3Rosalind Stanwell Smith, Sally Bloomfield and Graham Rook, International Scientific Forum on Home Hygiene, September 2012. The Hygiene Hypothesis and its implications for home hygiene, lifestyle and public health.
4Rosalind Stanwell Smith, Sally Bloomfield and Graham Rook, International Scientific Forum on Home Hygiene, September 2012. The Hygiene Hypothesis and its implications for home hygiene, lifestyle and public health.
5William Parker, The Conversation, 2016. If being too clean makes us sick, why isn’t getting dirty the solution?
6World Health Organization (Regional Office for Africa), 2017. Hygiene.
7Penny Sarchet, New Scientist, 2017. Attack of the household products: Hygiene’s hidden risks.
8John Leland, New York Times, 2000. Yes, there’s such a thing as too clean.
9US Food & Drug Association, 2016. Antibacterial soap? You can skip it, use plain soap and water.
10Katia Moskvitch, BBC, 2015. Can you be too clean?
11Rachel Moss, Huffington Post, 2018. Why you shouldn’t worry about how clean your house is, your kids will be alright.
12John Leland, New York Times, 2000. Yes, there’s such a thing as too clean.