A recent report from the RSPH following on from an IFH white paper called for action to debunk the myth that we are too clean. Furthermore, it examines the belief that need to ingest dirt and harmful bacteria to protect our health. The confusion lies with the acknowledged need for us to protect our microbiome. We know that we have to live alongside benign bacteria in and on our bodies which are essential for our health. But the media and even some scientists have taken this a step too far, saying we are “too clean, suggesting that we don’t need to wash our hands, for example.”
But not taking care to prevent infection can actually have the reverse effect. People may then need to take antibiotics which act like a sledgehammer to crack a nut, destroying swathes of healthy bacteria whilst dealing with the pathogens (harmful ones).
The RSPH survey found:
- Many people identified lifestyle factors responsible for preventing children from coming into contact with bacteria that are good for their health
- They mentioned the adverse affect of using too many antibiotics (59%) and spending too much time indoors (56%).
- But almost as many people believe incorrectly that keeping one’s home ‘too clean’ also has this effect (55%).
- Men are more than twice as likely as women to think there’s low or no risk associated with not washing hands with soap after using the toilet (16% vs 7%), or after handling raw meat (8% vs 4%).
- The public generally agree that good hygiene is important, including for its role in reducing pressure on the NHS (73%) and in tackling antibiotic resistance (50%).
The report emphasises that getting outdoors and interacting with friends, family, pets and the natural environment is important for getting exposure to ‘good bacteria.’
However, misleading headlines from sections of the media appear to have reinforced the myth that children ought to be exposed to harmful germs to build their immune system – a harmful and discredited myth believed by as many as one in four (23%) of the public. This misconception is particularly dangerous as it heightens a child’s risk of infection, which in turn requires antibiotics that can harm their microbiome.
In fact, a healthy microbiome is best supported by a more focused approach to hygiene – Targeted Hygiene. By focussing hygiene in the places and times that matter, it is possible to break the chain of infection and at the same time stay exposed to the ‘good bacteria’ required for a healthy microbiome.
The eight most crucial times to practise hygiene are:
- During food handling.
- Whilst eating with fingers.
- Using the toilet.
- Coughing, sneezing and nose blowing.
- Handling and laundering ‘dirty’ clothing and household linens
- Caring for domestic animals.
- Handling and disposing of refuse.
- Caring for an infected family member.
RSPH and IFH are calling for the widespread adoption of Targeted Hygiene as the most effective way of breaking the chain of infection. Schools, the media, and manufacturers of hygiene products all have a responsibility to advocate for clear messages about Targeted Hygiene. We need to dispel the myths to reduce the risk of infection.