Katharine Wootton

What's wrong with a bit of dirt?

Katharine Wootton
What's wrong with a bit of dirt?

Back in our childhood, before we’d even heard of hand sanitiser, fingers were happily stuck in everything from soil for mud pies to the remnants of  jam in a jar. Getting ourselves mucky was considered a healthy, childhood rite of passage. 

Today life is full of wet wipes and antibacterial soap as newspaper headlines warn of the germs on everything from our remote control to our computer keyboard. 

It seems the world is becoming a more sanitised place, which some may consider a bad thing, but according to the experts, it’s not quite as black and white as that... 

Dishing the truth on dirt

Hygiene has improved for a reason, helping us live longer, healthier lives. But as hygiene improved throughout the last century, we reached a point where some thought we’d perhaps gone too far. An article written by Professor David Strachan in 1989 said children were missing out on exposure to infections in childhood which was leading to an enormous rise in auto-immune conditions including allergies such as hayfever and asthma. 

However, in recent years experts have said this isn’t quite the full picture.   

Professor Sally Bloomfield from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine explains. 
“In recent years we have lost confidence in hygiene, believing that too much is bad for our health. The reality is that we need to protect ourselves against infection while also restoring contact with microbes which are vital to our health.”

There are millions of microbes everywhere – which is why you’ll hear scary headlines that state your TV remote harbours thousands of bacteria. But actually, relatively few of these bacteria do us any harm and most are necessary to our health to stop our body over-reacting to normal stimuli like grass or dust which is what happens in the case of allergies. 

“When we’re born, our immune system has no information but the more organisms we are exposed to, the better the library of microbes we will build up so our body knows what to attack – the nasty pathogens that make us ill – and what to tolerate, such as pollen and dust mites,” says Sally. 

Activities that can broaden this library include having lots of siblings, regular cuddles, having a pet, living on a farm and being out in the countryside rather than the city. Lots of antibiotics and a diet low in fibre can reduce this library. 

Put another way, living in an environment as sterile as intensive care could over time deplete the immune system of a healthy person, as you won’t be exposed to the teeming zoo of microbes found in our natural environment. And this could lead to more allergies and possibly – some researchers think – other diseases like Alzheimer’s. But that doesn’t mean we should all stop washing our hands in the name of broadening our exposure to microbes.  The old saying of ‘a little dirt never did anyone any harm’ can still apply, it just needs to be treated with common sense.  

Sally Bloomfield calls this ‘targeted hygiene’, which means putting your efforts into the places and times that matter, when and where infection could be passed on. 
“The ‘germiest’ things around you are not objects in your home, but people, animals and food,” says Sally. 

Targeted hygiene is about cleaning the places where these germs might hitch a ride between people, animals and food, so your hands, surfaces that your hands and food touch and cleaning cloths that move germs from one spot to another. As for the times to practise targeted hygiene, this is when preparing food, if you’ve sneezed, after using the loo – all the times we’re setting in motion the chain of infection.  This means while we need to disinfect kitchen surfaces, you might be wasting your time bleaching the floor which is less likely to have come into contact with germs from your hands or raw food. 

“It’s worth remembering that germs don’t necessarily lie where there is visible dirt as dirt is dry and germs hate dry places. Think about where the invisible germs might be and if you look at the journey of the germ, from person to contact surface to person, you can work out where you need to bother cleaning. It’s not about relaxing hygiene, it’s about being smarter with it.” says Sally.

So how often should I clean…?

Dr Van Niekerk from on-demand doctor’s service AKEALife.co.uk answers your common cleaning questions:

  • My bedding? At least every fortnight, depending on whether you shower before bed
  • My body? Some dermatology research says washing daily can be hazardous to your skin’s health, destroying natural bacteria and oils on the skin which form a barrier to other toxins. However, it’s a personal decision based on your skin type – just know you don’t need to lose sleep if you skip a day’s shower. Make sure you moisturise regularly to retain your skin’s natural oils.
  • My hands? We have to wash our hands if they’re soiled, but taking it to the next level of sanitising with alcohol gel only applies when dealing with high-risk people and children with a low immune system.