How Clean is too Clean?

Can you be too clean - is this too clean?

Do you feel you need to eradicate all the germs in your home and on your skin? Many people believe all bacteria are dangerous, and with the advent of covid-19, destroying them seems sensible, meaning sales of hand sanitisers and antibacterial cleaning agents have skyrocketed.

But can you end up being too clean? Read on to discover more about your personal bacteria and why they’re not all bad.

Bacteria on Your Skin

As you clean your home with antibacterial wipes and apply hand sanitiser whenever you’re out and about, any bacteria on your skin will be destroyed. This might seem like a great strategy, but did you know you have a population of bacteria living on your skin, known as your skin microbiome? These bacteria support not only skin health but also your overall health.

You might have heard about the bacteria living in your gut, but communities of bacteria are found all over your body as well as on your skin. Trillions of friendly, health-promoting bacteria, fungi and even viruses naturally make up your skin microbiome, around one billion bacteria living on each square centimetre of skin.

Your skin microbiome is a first line of defence against invaders, supports your immune system and controls inflammation. If the bacteria are damaged, you’re more likely to suffer from skin conditions like eczema and acne. Your gut and skin microbiomes communicate, affecting each other’s health. So any disruption to your skin microbiome can affect your gut bacteria, and your gut is where your immune system lives and is educated.

Bacteria and Your Immune System

If you constantly use antibacterial products on your skin, you’ll kill off not only harmful bacteria but also the natural beneficial bacteria living there, because antibacterial ingredients don’t discriminate between different types of bacteria. The gut microbiomes of people using antibacterial products regularly have been found to be different, too.

It’s thought exposure to a range of bacteria is helpful when the immune system is being educated during childhood. Research has found children living in households using antibacterial products had an increased risk of developing allergic conditions. Another study compared children who washed their hands with antibacterial soap with those using plain soap and found skin conditions and diarrhoea were more frequent with the use of the antibacterial soap. One intriguing study found toddlers living in households where antibacterial cleaners were used twice weekly were more likely to be obese and have a disrupted microbiome, although it’s not clear if the changes in the microbiome caused the weight gain. Eco-friendly cleaners weren’t associated with these microbiome changes or overweight.

If your antibacterial product proudly boasts about killing 99% of bacteria, stop to think about the 1% left behind. These resistant bacteria will end up dominating, with nothing left to compete with them. Bacterial resistance is a concern because the more bacteria become resistant, the less effectively they can be destroyed when they need to be, which could cause problems beyond the current pandemic.

Chemicals on Your Skin

Antibacterial chemicals are commonly used in soaps, cleaning products, wipes, skin creams and body washes.

One ingredient, triclosan, has been banned in several countries but continues to be used in some products in the UK such as handwashes, facial products, household cleaners and even toothpaste. It’s been linked to hormone disturbance and DNA damage to cells as well as disruption to the microbiome and bacterial mutations leading to resistance.

Staying Safe Safely

Covid-19 has presented a bacterial dilemma – needing to sanitise to prevent the spread of the virus, but wanting to build up a healthy microbiome to support health and immunity.

It makes sense to limit the damage to your microbiome when you clean your hands, reducing the likelihood of destroying the good with the bad. It’s impossible to avoid all collateral damage, but simply washing your hands vigorously with regular soap rather than antibacterial soap has been found to be even more effective at controlling viral spread than using hand sanitiser.

Save the sanitiser for when you can’t access to soap and water, and use one containing at least 60% alcohol, labelled ethanol or isopropyl on the label. The alcohol works by damaging the envelope around the virus containing the familiar spikes, meaning it can’t easily attach to and enter body cells. Hand sanitiser doesn’t destroy every virus – for example, it doesn’t kill off norovirus very well – but fortunately it’s effective against covid-19. 

Reducing your use of harsh household antibacterial chemicals makes sense – opt for greener alternatives instead. Unfortunately, many cleaning products don’t list all their ingredients on their label, but many do on their website.

Finally support your microbiome by eating plenty of plant-based foods containing fibre – food for your healthy bacteria – and enjoying fermented foods daily like kefir, miso. kimchi and sauerkraut.

If you feel your microbiome could benefit from support, I can help. Testing can reveal the shape your microbiome is in, and we’ll work together to give your friendly bacteria a helping hand.

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