Public health officials are calling for an end to the myth that being “too clean” in the home is bad for health.
A new report from the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) says adults and children should get outside to play with family, friends and pets in order to build healthy immunity, but this should not get in the way of good hygiene in the home.
Experts said people should worry less about cleaning floors, walls and furniture, and concentrate more on surfaces, food preparation, washing dishcloths and putting bedding and towels on a 60C wash.
Such simple measures can cut down the risk of spreading serious infections such as listeria, e. coli or norovirus and add up to a “targeted hygiene” approach, they said.
The new RSPH report aims to tackle the idea that being “too clean” is bad for health and causes allergies in children.
It said the “hygiene hypothesis” popular in the late 1980s, which suggested that rising rates of allergies had an underlying cause of “overcleanliness” and called for children to be exposed to a wide range of potentially harmful microbes, has now been scientifically refuted.
It said what people actually need is diverse exposure to microbes that are mostly harmless – such as through playing outside – rather than infections from harmful microbes.
Lifestyle habits, such as keeping children indoors and an increasing use of antibiotics, are more to blame than cleanliness for keeping children from getting the exposure they need, it added.
The report calls for people to adopt a “targeted hygiene” approach, such as cleaning surfaces, utensils and hands thoroughly during and after food preparation, including after handling raw meat.
People should also wash hands with soap and water before eating with fingers, after using the toilet, after coughing, sneezing and blowing noses and after handling and laundering dirty clothing and household linens.
Good handwashing is also essential after playing with pets, feeding them and clearing up their waste, and after putting out bin bags and caring for an infected family member who has vomiting or diarrhoea, the report said.
Towels and bed linens should also be washed at 60C to prevent the spread of infections.
Professor Lisa Ackerley, RSPH trustee and food hygiene expert, said: “Getting outdoors and playing with friends, family and pets is great for exposure to ‘good bacteria’ and building a healthy microbiome (genetic material that is essential for development and immunity), but it’s also crucial that the public don’t get the wrong end of the stick – this doesn’t need to get in the way of good hygiene.
“Targeted hygiene undertaken at the crucial times and places is a way of preventing infection that is cheap on time and low effort, and still exposes you to all the ‘good bacteria’ your body benefits from.
“Good hygiene in the home and everyday life helps to reduce infections, is vitally important to protecting our children and reducing pressure on the NHS, and has a huge role to play in the battle against antibiotic resistance.”
Professor Sally Bloomfield, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “The problem is that we have become confused about what hygiene is, and how it differs from cleanliness.
“Whereas cleaning means removing dirt and microbes, hygiene means cleaning in the places and times that matter – in the right way – to break the chain of infection whilst preparing food, using the toilet, caring for pets etc.”
An accompanying survey for the report found that almost one in four (23%) people agreed with the statement ‘hygiene in the home is not important because children need to be exposed to harmful germs to build their immune system’.
More than half also mistakenly thought keeping homes too clean was damaging.
The report said: “This is a potentially harmful belief which could lead to children being exposed unnecessarily to harmful or even life-threatening infections.”
The survey also revealed “substantial public confusion” about the relationship between cleanliness and hygiene, with 61% believing dirty hands from outdoor play are likely to spread harmful germs, despite there being little evidence that outdoor dirt carries harmful microbes.
Some 36% of people also mistakenly believed dirt is usually or always harmful.
The poll also found that 22% of people never wash and dry dish cloths between use, and almost one in three (32%) mistakenly believed this was low risk.