arnab gupta

Trying to be too clean

October 18, 2011

Being conscious of our hygiene is a good thing, of course. But is it possible to overdo our hygiene routines for our own good? Have you noticed how more and more people use sanitizing hand wipes, or antibacterial hand soaps? Their function, of course, is to ‘wipe out’ all the bacteria around you—but is that always a good thing?

I’ve always had my theories, but now there’s actual evidence—it’s probably not a very good thing on the long run.

For one, not all micro-organisms that we’re exposed to (or that live on or inside us) are harmful for our health. Some are actually our friends! It’d suck to have them die out, right? Well, guess what the antimicrobial lotions that you use do.

For another, our bodies have their own incredible immune system, which is trusted with protecting the body against disease, and killing germs and tumors that affect us. Well, part of how the human immune system works is that it’s adaptive, which means, our body actually learns from experience whether a certain organism is harmful or not, and whether something in our body needs to be attacked or not. This is an incredible mechanism, but this, by definition, is dependent upon the body being exposed to some amount of microbes, so that it can keep itself healthy and at a cutting edge.

In fact, this is exactly the function of vaccines: expose the body to a small amount of impotent germs, so that the body can trigger its immune system and form a ‘memory’ of that particular disease. Next time an actual disease tries to attack—BAM!—the immune system is there to take care of it at the outset.

(As an aside, yes—all those people going on an on about getting rid of vaccines? They don’t know what they’re talking about. Some people are not in a position to make an informed choice on their own, and those that are, sometimes make their decisions based on something other than logic, science and information. For example, this (a video on the page starts autoplaying; please mute your speakers if that’s a problem).)

Given this mechanism, what do you think happens when you wipe out every kind of microbe on or around us, with those antimicrobial wipes of yours? The body loses all ability to adapt and keep its immune system updated and at peak working condition. This is fine as long as you allow nothing infectious to approach us—but the moment something does sneak through, the body has no mechanism to counter it. The effect—being sick at the first sign of disease. This, of course, is not such a great thing.

Most people are familiar with this effect—this is why we’re wary about drinking tap water when we visit a new place. Even though residents there are perfectly healthy—which means the water is nominally clean—we might get an upset stomach upon drinking the local water: our bodies were not ready for the local microbial action!

This effect is multiplied many times when we’re chronically using wipes to “sanitize” ourselves. Sanitize ourselves we do, but we also take the edge out of our immune systems.

Being hygienic is good, yes. But it’s also good to play in the mud sometimes, and to expose ourselves to our fellow invisible Earthlings. And it’s mostly fine—and in fact healthier—to wash ourselves with just good old soap!