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Is It Possible To Be Too Clean?

Is it possible to be too clean?  The answer is yes.  Research shows that the overuse of antibiotics, household disinfectants and other sanitizing products has harmful implications to our health.  The issue is that these products not only kill “bad bacteria”, but “good bacteria” as well.  While there is still much we have to learn about the human microbiome, it is clear that it plays a vital role in our health and wellbeing, and that diversity is essential.

Over sanitization has been a health issue in America in the past, and people are now becoming more obsessive.  Dr. Ralph Morris, a Minnesota physician puts it this way, “It’s really about a balance between exposure (to) and avoidance of environmental pathogens.”  While it is certainly important to practice basic cleanliness, it is essential to remember not to go overboard.   A healthy microbiome results from the symbiosis of “good” and “bad” bacteria.

The microbiome is made up of trillions of bacterial cells that we pick up from our environments.  While mostly concentrated in the gut, the microbiome spans our whole body.  Microbes play a role in food digestion and also trigger the immune system to fight off infections.  Some microbes are linked to inflammation and weight gain.  In fact, a difference in microbial makeup can predispose people to certain illnesses or even impact the way they react to drug treatments.  David Mills, a UC Davis microbiologist who studies the infant microbiome, explains, “We’re starting to think of all these microbes as an organ.  Our microbiome is shaped by our diet, and our antibiotic use, and the sterile environment we live in.” 

Our microbiomes begin forming in utero, when we are exposed to germs, and keeps forming and changing throughout adulthood.  It is now known that the first few months of a child’s life are a crucial time for building a healthy microbiome.  There is research showing that babies born vaginally have more diverse microbiomes than those born via C-section, and that they also have less incident of allergies and asthma.  There is also research showing that children who are kept too clean may lack microbes with “troll like receptors”, which play a role in signaling the immune system to produce antibodies against certain pathogens; this leads to allergic responses taking over. 

While we have plenty of data regarding the importance of the microbiome to our health and wellbeing, it seems as though our lifestyle practices are guided by fear rather than science.  On a collective level, our obsession with killing germs has resulted in antibiotic-resistant bacteria throughout the world (this has been reported by the World Health Organization).  Things are now only getting worse; we are living in a time in which hand sanitization centers are popping up in workplaces and in shops- we need to stop and think about the implications of overusing these products.  By over killing bacteria, you only create further imbalance.

Hand washing is an effective way to protect oneself from pathogens, just use common sense and don’t overdo it.  Appropriate times to wash hands are before eating, after using the bathroom, before touching your face, and when you come home from being somewhere.   While hand sanitizer is convenient, it is not ideal.  Opt for soap over hand sanitizer whenever possible.   Using hand sanitizer may actually lower your resistance to disease by killing “good” bacteria, which help protect against “bad” bacteria.  If you don’t have access to soap and a sink, opt for a hand sanitizer that is fragrance free and doesn’t contain triclosan, a chemical that was banned by the FDA in 2017 due to its role in fostering antibiotic resistant bacteria.  It is also important to use real soap and not antibacterial soap for these same reasons.  To protect your skin and microbiome from chemical ingredients in conventional soaps, you can carry natural soap on your person, in lieu of the personal hand sanitizer.  Edye’s Naturals makes homemade soap in small batches using the cold-processed method.  You’ll only find ingredients you can trust in Edye’s Naturals Soaps and other skin-care products. 

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