Everywhere you look nowadays, you find people paranoid about germs. Society is so focused on creating a culture of cleanliness that we are destroying our body’s innate ability to protect itself from harmful organisms. I have a degree in Microbiology and about 15 years worth of experience in the healthcare industry. I can tell you right now that I am not worried about my dog licking the kids, the dirt on my floor, or whether my bathroom towel touches my face after it touches the rest of my body. Cleanliness is important, however, not to the extent that Americans specifically worry about it. The science of cleanliness is a very complicated subject but I thought I would share a few tidbits with you that may put your mind at ease when your kid eats that gummy bear that they dropped on the floor!
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What Is Cleanliness?
So, before we discuss a few issues around the science of cleanliness, let’s first answer the question ‘What is Cleanliness’?. Here is the definition of cleanliness from Wikipedia:
Cleanliness is both the abstract state of being clean and free from dirt, and the habit of achieving and maintaining that state. Cleanliness is often achieved through cleaning.
The definition continues and says that cleanliness contains a component of ‘moral’ value. Hygiene in american culture has become such a huge deal, not only because we worry about germs and sickness but because Americans see things that are ‘unclean’ as morally corrupt. It is hard to overcome this obsession with cleanliness when germs AND morals are involved! How many times have you been out in public with a dirty kid and felt judged? Do you feel like people are looking down on your parenting skills because your child is dirty? If you want an interesting look at this concept, check out the history of cleanliness in Science Magazine.
The Great Unwashed
Why in the world do Americans find it so offensive to not bathe on a daily basis? And what is our obsession with cleanliness doing to the environment? Would we be a ‘greener’ society if we were just a tad bit dirtier? Are we too clean for our own good?
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NY Times ran a post called The Great Unwashed that discussed in detail the American’s need for bodily cleanliness. We Americans never USED to be so obsessed. Once houses started getting full baths built into them we decided that the human body should be scrubbed free of dirt and germs on a daily basis. In comes the adage that Cleanliness is next to Godliness. Apparently, scrubbing behind your ears is almost as important as saying your prayers.
A Culture of Cleanliness and Our Environment
So, what exactly happens during our daily scrubbing ritual? Our culture of cleanliness isn’t so great for US or for the environment:
1. We use a lot of water...
If you are taking a shower with a standard shower head you will be using about 5 gallons of water per minute. Taking a 10 minute shower (I am SO not that fast!) will use 50 gallons of water. Multiply that times 4 people in my family and 30 days in a month and you get WAY too much water being washed down the drain!
2. We expose ourselves to all sorts of unnatural product ingredients.
While I am good about trying to choose natural products when I can, I admit I am not 100% green in my beauty routine. And since our skin is porous, whatever is getting scrubbed ON is also getting absorbed into the skin. The common rule of thumb is that if you can’t pronounce it you probably don’t want it on your skin.
3. We are washing stuff down the drain.
And I am not just talking about the stuff you just used to scrub your underarms with. What else is going down the drain? All of our skin’s natural oils. So, in an effort to replace them, we buy expensive lotions to rub all over our newly cleansed skin. I admit, I love the lotions. I like to think people standing near me would rather smell lavender and rosemary than unwashed mom who worked out yesterday and didn’t bathe!
4. We are destroying our skin’s natural immunity.
Scientists have discovered that healthy skin actually has colonies of good bacteria on it that prevent infections and irritation. When you attack your skin with soap and a loofah, however, all those friendly bacteria go right down the drain. This leaves us more vulnerable to skin problems.
5. You may be ruining your sex appeal!
Really! Apparently body odor is a natural aphrodisiac that can increase sexual arousal. Depending on your own personal scent (and your significant other’s sense of smell), it can be one of the major aphrodisiacs for the senses.
Cleanliness could be a health hazard
Scientists are starting to figure out that our culture of cleanliness may actually be making us SICKER. If you are using antibacterial hand soaps and dousing your hands with chemical hand sanitizers, you may want to rethink your cleanliness routine. Our war on microbes is killing off all the good bacteria along with the ones that can actually make us sick. And that loss of GOOD bacteria may be causing our immune systems to falter when it encounters a microbial threat. There may also be a link between excessive cleanliness and asthma. This hygiene hypothesis has emerged as one reason to explain the rise of asthma and allergies in the developed world. So, how can you remedy the effects of excessive hygiene?
American hygiene habits to kick:
- Stop bleaching things that don’t need bleach: Your kitchen counters, dining room table, and bathroom floor do not need to be sterile. Use natural cleaning products to wipe down surfaces if you need to clean off crumbs and sticky spills. Or, make my DIY pine vinegar!
- Avoid antibacterial soaps: Soap, by it’s very nature, kills bacteria. By adding antibacterial chemicals to it, you are just exposing your body to unnecessary and potentially harmful ingredients.
- Let your kid get dirty: Let them crawl in the grass, play with bugs, and lick the dog. Seriously…the more germs they encounter, the healthier they will be!
Make sure you add probiotics to your diet. This is a great way to boost the beneficial flora of your gut which, in turn, helps you fight off the BAD bacteria! This is an easy way to fight the health consequences of our culture of cleanliness.
Opinions on Cleanliness Around the World
Our culture of cleanliness is really unique to the United States. So, if there are so many not so great side effects of a hot shower, why do Americans feel the need to do it with such regularity? There are plenty of other perfectly civilized countries that don’t have the same need for cleanliness that Americans do. Most of Europe has far fewer concerns about cleanliness than we do here in the US. I have been to Europe and don’t remember them being particularly smelly people. Anybody want to weigh in on the European bathing cultures compared to those of us uber clean Americans?
In some cultures, telling someone that they stink is a GOOD thing! Check out this article on the culture of smell and maybe you will be persuaded to skip the shower tomorrow. Or, maybe move to Mali, where the men like their women to smell like onions! I wonder if they make THAT in a body lotion?
Are you addicted to cleanliness?
Diane has a Bachelor’s degree in Microbiology with a Minor in Health Management and Policy. She spent many years working in cancer research, academics, and biotechnology. Concern over the growing incidence of human disease and the birth of her children led her to begin living a more natural life. She quickly realized that the information she was learning along the way could be beneficial to many others and started blogging as a way to share this knowledge with others. While passionate about health and the environment she can’t quite give up her favorite Cheetos and Diet Coke! Learn more about her HERE.