Are We Now At Risk Of Overdoing The Hygiene?
Are We Now At Risk Of Overdoing The Hygiene?

Coronavirus has turned us into hygiene fanatics. But, while sensible strategies are vital, could going too far do more harm than good?

Since the coronavirus pandemic began earlier this year, we’ve all upped our hygiene standards significantly.

Scared of catching the dreaded virus, we’ve spent the last few months washing and disinfecting our hands, clothes, surfaces and anything that could possibly expose us to infection.

As a result, sales of soap, bleach, hand washes and sanitiser have gone through the roof. Even prior to lockdown, back in February, sales of hand sanitiser went up by 255%, demand for liquid soap went up by 7% and sales of household cleaning products rose by 10%.

With Government guidelines on social distancing and hygiene still in place, this preoccupation with cleanliness has now become part of our daily lives. The question is, are we now at risk of overdoing the hygiene?

Too Clean?

This notion that we are too clean for our own good is quite damaging, says Professor Rook, microbiologist at University College London.

This notion that we are too clean for late 80s with the concept of the hygiene hypothesis, based on the work of epidemiologist Dr David Strachan who suggested that the rising rates of allergies in children were linked to a general increase in cleanliness and also to the lower incidence of infectious diseases in chidhood.

This was totally misinterpreted and for a long time people believed that too much cleanliness was bad for your health, and that exposure to all sorts of microorganisms, or microbes had a protective effect.

This theory has since been refuted yes, we do need to be exposed to certain microorgaisms, but we need to distinguish between those that are beneficial and those that are not.

Helpful Bacteria

Professor Sally Bloomfield at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine says, Science now shows that exposure to “beneficial” microbes is beneficial for health.

She says that we acquire these beneficial microbes from people w share our lives with, domestic pets eating a diverse diet of unprocesse foods and spending time in nature.

We also acquire beneficial microbes from our mothers in childbirth and breastfeeding.

In fact, these beneficial microbes create a healthy microbiome in our gut, skin and respiratory tract.

The microbes we need exposure to are different to the ones that cause infection,’ says Sally. A lack of diverse microbiota on and in our body is linked to an increasing range of diseases.

Being In Nature

The microorganisms we encounter in nature, we have lived with since prehistoric times and they played an essential role in the evolution of our immune system, says Professor Rook. Most are harmless, but some are necessary for good health.

In fact, Scandinavian studies show that the microbiota in the home is beneficial only when it resembles that of the natural environment. In the past, homes were built with natural products (such as wood and mud) so the microbes resembled those in nature.

These microbes are mostly lacking in modern homes, so what you want to do is to keep your home clean but have as much contact with the natural environment as you can says Professor Rook.

A staggering 90% of our time is spent indoors according to the 2019 Hygiene Report, but it’s time to break this habit by getting outside.

Microbes In Food

Some of the things we eat are not really to nourish us, but to nourish the right organisms in the gut, says Professor Rook.

Breast milk, for example, contains prebiotic bacteria, beneficial for a baby’s gut microbiome! As adults we should aim to eat plenty of fresh, plant foods, as these contain microbes that we need to stay healthy.

For example, probiotic foods including sauerkraut, kefir and live yogurt and prebiotic foods such as avocado, leeks, banana, onions and garlic, are beneficial to maintain for a healthy gut. This contributes towards better immunity.

Targeted Hygiene

We can’t see microbes. So, how do we best protect ourselves from infection and still get exposure to essential microbes? According to the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) your best tactic is to practice targeted hygiene.

This means being hygienic in the right places at the right times,’ says environmental health practitioner, Dr Lisa Ackerley. ‘It’s more important to clean a door handle or to wash your hands before and after preparing food, than dusting or washing the floor.

This helps to break the chain of infection (from harmful microbes) while you stay exposed to the good bacteria.

At the beginning of the pandemic, we were told to wash our hands, adds Dr Ackerley. I’ve since spoken to a lot of people who were self-isolating but who kept washing their hands until they became red, raw; that’s not helpful at all. You just need to wash your hands at the times that matter.

This could be when you come in from being outdoors or after touching surfaces that could be contaminated.

Dr Acklerley adds: The same goes for using hand sanitiser. You only need to use it when there’s no access to soap and water, and not while you’re sitting on your sofa watching TV!

The 9 Moments When Cleanliness Really Matters

The microbes that harm us come from different sources eg contaminated, raw food and surfaces, infected people, says Dr Ackerley.

These can be shed through particles, faeces, saliva, coughs and sneezes and they find a way in via our mouth, nose, lungs, eyes, cuts and grazes, and touching our faces, that’s why hand hygiene is so important.

Other transfer routes include hand-to-surface contact, via cloths, clothing, basins, handles and air.

The key is to break the chain of infection by cleaning and disinfecting at times that matter.

The International Scientific Forum on Home Hygiene has identified the nine key moments when it’s easiest for harmful microbes to be spread. These are the times to practice targeted hygiene.

Using The Toilet

Close the lid when flushing and always wash your hands afterwards. Clean the toilet regularly, and once or twice a day if someone has a gastric illness.

Coughing And Sneezing

Always use a tissue and dispose it safely. Wash your hands or use a hand sanitiser when out and about.

Handling Raw Food

Wash hands before and after preparing food. Clean all surfaces and utensils. Wash vegetables and fruit in running water.

Eating With Your Fingers

Keep your own portions separate and always wash hands before and afterwards.

Caring For Pets

Always wash your hands after handling litter trays, food and keep animal utensils separate. Clean pet cages regularly. Wash hands after handling animals and before eating.

Handling And Laundering Clothing And Linens

Always wash your hands after handling dirty washing. Wash cloths, towels and bed linen regularly; underwear and intimate items daily. To get rid of harmful microbes, wash at 60 degrees.

Domestic Waste Disposal

Emply rubbish into uulside binis regularly. Wash bin surfaces and wash your hands after use.

Using Surfaces Frequently Touched By Other People

This can include the TV remote and door knobs. Clean surfaces handled by yourself and others regularly, and more frequently if someone has an infection.

Caring For Infected Family Members

If someone in your family has an infection it can easily be passed on. So, all surfaces that the infected person comes into contact with should be cleaned frequently including baths, basins, toilet, door knobs and remotes. Don’t share cooking plates, cups, cutlery etc.

Protect Your Hands

Handwashing for at least 20 seconds with soap and water is the top recommendation for reducing the spread of the coronavirus. It can also prevent the spread of other viruses, including colds and flu.

The next best option is to use hand sanitiser, especially when you’re out and about.

‘Washing your hands too much can make them very dry, red, itchy, flaky and cracked, making skin more susceptible to bacterial infection,’ says consultant dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto.

Repeated use of soaps and detergents can also lead to irritant contact dermatitis.’ So, what’s your best tactic in protecting the skin on your hands, while trying to stay safe? Dr Mahto says…

  • Use mild, fragrance-free soap, but don’t use too much.
  • Carry a non-fragranced hand cream at all times and get into the habit of moisturising after washing.
  • Apply hand cream to hands at night and cover with cotton gloves to increase absorption.
  • Avoid hand sanitisers that have too much alcohol.
  • Soothe dry hands with a probiotic hand cream.


We’re not as clean as we might like to think as our skin is covered in more than 1,000 types of bacteria, also viruses, fungi and mites. Most of these are harmless; some are beneficial.

Studies carried out in Finland have shown that living close to green spaces and agriculture increases the biodiversity of microbes on the skin and is linked to a lower risk of allergies.


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