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Too Clean for Our Own Good?

My daughter has been licking things lately—bookmarks, a fork handle, her pencils. She’s not a toddler putting things in her mouth; she’s a smart seven-year old who knows this habit gives her mother the heebie-jeebies. “There are germs all over that thing,” I admonish. She licks it again.

I’ve tried scaring her out of her uncivil behavior with the story of my friend’s childhood trip to the Guggenheim Museum. Family lore has it that he licked his way up the museum’s famous curving banister only to come down with the Trifecta—chicken pox, measles, and mumps—in the weeks that followed. My daughter considers this horror for a moment, and then shrugs it off. “It’s okay,” she tells me confidently, “I have shots for all those things.”

Twenty-first century Americans like to believe we can inoculate ourselves against any ill. If an actual shot isn’t available to protect us, then we clean, wrap, and deodorize until we believe we’re beyond harm’s way. But our fastidious attention to cleanliness may not be helping us as much as we think it is. In fact, our squeaky-clean lifestyles just might be contributing to a host of diseases we can’t wash away.

Hygiene or Too Clean?
The best example of our puritanical approach to cleanliness is most noticeable in the tsunami of antibacterial products that have entered the market since their introduction in the late 1980s. Today, Americans spend more than a billion dollars a year on antibacterial products, which includes air filters, lip glosses, mattress covers, and a bevy of cleaning agents. For all of our anxiety about cleanliness, however, it turns out that my daughter may have the right idea. There is growing evidence that we are becoming too clean for our own good.

Known as the hygiene hypothesis, this theory suggests that people need to be exposed to a wide array of microorganisms in order to keep their immune systems alert. While avoiding germs can prevent infections, exposure to pollen, dust, and microbes allows your immune system to fight back. This strengthens your immunity and prepares it for future assaults.

When we over sanitize our environments, our immune system doesn’t build a normal response to foreign substances, and this can set us up for future disease. 

This may be one reason why autoimmune diseases, such as asthma, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and allergenic diseases, including eczema, are on the rise in Western countries. Interestingly, many less developed countries have low or no occurrences of these diseases, although second-generation immigrants to the U.S. and other Western countries have started to experience them.

Some studies have shown that in households with pets or with a higher number of siblings (and thus, germs), children are less likely to develop asthma later in life. Although the evidence doesn’t completely rule out other explanations—some kids may develop asthma due to cleaning chemicals rather than cleaning per se—it does suggest that we don’t need to keep kids in an airtight bubble.     

When Is Enough, Enough?
Antimicrobial products are also concerning researchers. Most of the liquid soaps, dish detergents, and sponges found at the average grocery store are labeled as containing antibacterials, often in loud and proud type. This usually means that they have a chemical called triclosan in them. Because of its antimicrobial effects, triclosan is showing up in a wide variety of soaps, as well as in many less expected places. Toys, garbage bags, kitchen utensils, mulch, toothpaste, shaving cream, carpeting, and even underwear are some of the products that now contain triclosan.

What’s the worry about triclosan? As we’re finding out, we need bacteria in order to teacher our bodies how to fight them. Also, it’s important to remember that bacteria aren’t all bad. In fact, there are more bacteria in your body than there are cells, nearly ten times more.

Another problem is that unlike baking soda, vinegar, and other cleaning solvents of yore, triclosan stays on surfaces much longer. This is supposed to be part of its appeal, but it also means that bacteria can find a way to eventually outwit it. As the old adage goes, what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger, and this is definitely true of bacteria that have been thwarted by triclosan. Lab tests indicate that triclosan-resistant bacteria are on their way, and probably sooner than later.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about triclosan is that it’s showing up in places seemingly far removed from the laundry room or kitchen counter. According to a report from the Environmental Working Group, samples from stream water, breast milk, and children’s urine have all shown high levels of triclosan.

Happy Balance?
Finding the right balance between hygienic and overly clean means a controlled stimulus—wash hands but also let the little ones play with others and outside. And although antimicrobials have their place—mainly in hospitals and in homes of people with immune deficiencies—it seems the rest of us should take the advice of the American Medical Association, which heeds against using them—unless of course, you’re visiting the Guggenheim anytime soon and are feeling experimental.

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