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Monday, December 20, 2010

Being Too Clean Can Be a Health Hazard

The more we have evolved as human beings, the more conscious we have become of our hygiene and cleanliness. So much so that the zeal for cleanliness has turned into an obsession for some, and we end up sterilizing everything in our paths. From the time a baby is born, we make sure that everything is clean and sterilized and as much “germ-free” as possible, which includes the antibacterial soaps, wipes, tissues, using disposable diapers and sterilizing the feeding bottle etc. The practise of personal hygiene habits continues with the growth of the child into adulthood. But sometimes, being too clean can be a health hazard.

The zeal for cleanliness may be the major factor for the emergence of antibiotic-resistant strains of various harmful bacteria. The antibacterial products, that we use, kill most of the harmful bacteria but are also equally capable of eliminating more than one-third of the good bacteria that are normally present in and vital to the health of our skin.

 Hand washing with antibacterial soaps
         (Source : Wikimedia Commons)

A recent study, conducted by the University of Michigan School of Public Health, suggests that young people who are overexposed to antibacterial soaps containing triclosan may suffer more allergies and exposure to higher levels of Bisphenol A among adults may negatively influence the immune system.

Triclosan is a chemical compound that is commonly used in products like antibacterial soaps, toothpaste, pens, diaper bags and medical devices. Bisphenol A is found in plastics and also in the protective lining of food cans. Both these chemicals are considered to be endocrine-disrupting compounds (EDCs), which affect the hormones in the body.

"The triclosan findings in the younger age groups may support the 'hygiene hypothesis,' which maintains that living in very clean and hygienic environments may impact our exposure to micro-organisms that are beneficial for development of the immune system," said Allison Aiello, associate professor at the U-M School of Public Health and principal investigator on the study.

"It is possible that a person can be too clean for his or her own good," agreed Aiello, who is also a visiting associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard.

"The hard part to get across is that a little dirt is a good thing," says Stuart B. Levy, M.D., director of the Centre for Adaptation Genetics and Drug Resistance at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston. "You should wash after normal activities, where you come in contact with microbes and dirt, especially before you eat. But you don't have to clean every 5 to 10 minutes." (Source: The Dirt on Cleanliness)

“We need antibacterial products in hospitals and in the homes of people who have low immunity,” acknowledges Dr. Levy. "When I send a patient home, I will often tell her to use an antibacterial cleaner until her condition is healed. I will say that she should cleanse with it for minutes, not seconds. But when I find out she has been using that same antibacterial product casually in the home, I worry whether it will do any good " he says. "Bacteria have likely already been selected that resist it."

For your daily use, Dr. Levy recommends “the use of fast-acting non-residues for cleaning: bleaches, peroxides, alcohols, and the traditional soap and water. And when you do wash your hands, wash them thoroughly for 15 to 30 seconds with plain soap and water.” 

The widespread use of anti-bacterial could eventually mean that they will be ineffective when we really need them. There is a need for conscious effort at reducing the use of anti-bacterial products, and obsessive behaviour concerned with being clean, ought to be checked. This is not to say that we should stop being hygiene conscious, but put a limit to it and use the anti-bacterial products only where it is called for. In other words, a little dirt is good for health.

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