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Are We Really Too Clean?

With guest host John Donvan

A new take on the great unwashed:  Backed by new research into good germs, some Americans are putting the soap away.

An outdoor shower. (Jordan Merrick / Creative Commons)

An outdoor shower. (Jordan Merrick / Creative Commons)

The signs say it all. Please shower before entering the pool. All employees must wash hands before returning to work. Or to go more Biblical: Cleaniness is next to Godliness. Clean is a social value. It’s the American way. But is there such a thing overworrying the clean thing? Or, is clean good, but are we going about it in the wrong way? Science is beginning to suggest possibly yes to both questions. While socially, more folks are skipping the soap, the shampoo, the deodorant, and everything that we tend to define as cleansing. And how popular are they after that? Or. are they onto something? This hour Up On Point: Hygiene hijinks. Rethinking clean.

– John Donvan


Julia Scott, journalist and radio producer. Editor of the forthcoming book, “Drivel: Deliciously Bad Writing By Your Favorite Authors.” (@juliascribe)

Elizabeth Grice, assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. Principal investigator in the school’s Grice Lab.

James Heywood, director of AO Biome, a Cambridge-based startup bacterial therapy company. (@jamie_heywood)

From The Reading List

New York Times: My No-Soap, No-Shampoo, Bacteria-Rich Hygiene Experiment — “My skin began to change for the better. It actually became softer and smoother, rather than dry and flaky, as though a sauna’s worth of humidity had penetrated my winter-hardened shell. And my complexion, prone to hormone-related breakouts, was clear. For the first time ever, my pores seemed to shrink. As I took my morning “shower” — a three-minute rinse in a bathroom devoid of hygiene products — I remembered all the antibiotics I took as a teenager to quell my acne. How funny it would be if adding bacteria were the answer all along.”

CNN: Minnesota issues ban on antibacterial ingredient – “The health effects of triclosan for humans are still unclear. Some studies suggest that the chemical could be linked to antibiotic resistance, but evidence is mixed, and the Environmental Protection Agency says more research is needed to evaluate risk. There is some evidence that long-term exposure to some ingredients in antibacterial products, including triclosan, “could pose health risks, such as bacterial resistance or hormonal effects,” according to the FDA.”

San Francisco Chronicle: Pfizer joins Second Genome for microbiome study — “Scientists have developed several theories about the roles that different gut bacteria play in the ways that the body breaks down and uses nutrients and vitamins, processes they suspect relate to metabolic disease. For example, microbiome transplant studies have suggested that the introduction of specific microbes can effectively drive weight loss or gain.”

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  • creaker

    Nothing wrong with a little soap and water – it’s the added chemicals and antibacterials in so many products that are the problem. Funny how so many people will eat organic to avoid putting chemicals in their bodies and then use the nastiest stuff on their skin.

  • henrietta11

    There are natural soaps with helpful ingredients for the skin.As for the mouth,check out Oil Pulling.

  • myblusky

    My concern is that hand sanitizer people are using. I’m sure its great for workers in the medical community, but I’m not sure people at large should be rubbing down with it the second after they touch something.

    It is just marketing that is making everyone afraid of bacteria.

    • JP_Finn

      Agreed, CPG companies like J&J and GOJO employed a classic marketing technique, using fear as a purchasing driver, to get Purell dispensers on the walls in almost every room in virtually every hospital, school, and office in America–and bottles of the stuff flying off the shelves in stores. I view folks who “sanitize” almost ritually to be borderline hypochondriac; and find it ironic that these people seem to come down with minor maladies like colds and flus more often than I do.

      It’s interesting how the more we became aware over time of the prevalence of bacteria and viruses in our environment, we began to perceive the world is this twisted place riddled with invisible pests out to kill us and our children. Obviously, disease can spread; and some diseases are no fun, others genuinely dangerous to our health. But man, can people overreact!

  • adks12020

    I’m a big fan of “a little dirt don’t hurt”. Some people just get so crazy about antibacterial stuff. It’s totally unhealthy and unnecessary. Funny part is the people that go crazy about that stuff seem, to me anyway, to get sick more often. Then they use more antibacterial in response thinking that will help.

  • RogerO

    Two weeks ago, I cut out the detergent-in-the-shower routine. I haven’t made any announcement, and no one has noticed — and the people around me would say something if they did. Hands get washed, yes, and clothing gets changed daily – my psoriasis hasn’t disappeared yet, but this is going to be a long term change nevertheless.

  • Michiganjf

    When listening to the On Point interview with E.O Wilson about a month ago, I had an epiphany…

    Mr. Wilson spoke about the “human biome,” and how some 70% of cells within a healthy human body are not genetically human, but rather microorganisms… he believes, as do most microbiologists, that humans are becoming less healthy due to modern septic practices which rob humans of many microorganisms they need for a variety of reasons, both understood and not yet fully understood.
    Many modern diseases have likely exploded because our immune systems are deprived of exposure to microorganisms which allow our immune systems to fully mature, or act as symbiotic evolution has provided.

    My epiphany was this:

    How will humans ever be able to leave earth multi-generationally, if we require thousands (perhaps tens of thousands) of DIFFERENT types of microorganisms in order to be healthy?
    Space will be a fairly septic environment, and the human condition would degrade generation upon generation as biodiversity within the human biome decreases.

    We may even have already compromised our health by killing off many needed species… for instance, it could be that humans in different regions of the planet adapted in different ways to the microorganisms available around them… even to the degree that a particular population requires certain food stuffs to assure that their immune system matures properly. One might not be able to get a particular organism they need, for instance, until they’ve eaten the intestinal lining, or some other part, of a particular antelope species alongside of which certain regional populations of humans evolved.

    We are only beginning to adequately research and understand the diversity of the human biome, and what critical role microorganisms play in our well-being.

    We often wonder if we will ever be able to find another home if we destroy the Earth, and it may be that human existence off-planet is simply not tenable, since we will not find exposure to the required diversity of life in space.

    In fact, it may be that we have already doomed ourselves to ever more degraded health by the mere fact that we’re now causing the planet’s sixth great mass extinction, and we needed many of the other species on Earth in order to be healthy ourselves.

    • Blake Bobit

      People are living longer, healthier lives than ever before. While your argument is vaguely interesting, it doesn’t follow logic. Go wash your hands.

      • Michiganjf

        We’re living longer for a variety of reasons which have nothing to do with reducing the diversity of our microbiome.

        Listen to the show.

        • allenius

          The 80 and 90 year olds of today grew up before chemical fertilizers, pesticides and most of the other chemical products we are thinking about here. Also many people did not bathe every day then and I had never heard of anyone washing their hair every day. My guess is that the people born in the 1950′s or later will not be living nearly as long due to the chemical free-for-all we have been having for the past half century–that plus obesity, which is also not unrelated.

    • dust truck

      Who knows, but there may be a day when a doctor prescribes germ therapy for certain diseases. After all, we’re already starting to understand it with recent discoveries about beneficial bacteria in the GI system or even in people’s ears.

  • AC

    i’ve been pondering lately whether the ‘local’ grown movement actually is a danger because if you suddenly travel or are exposed to something ‘not local’ it could cause issues….less immunity or something

    • jmpo’lock

      It’s actually the opposite, because local, organic etc., generally is more diverse and full of natural biota, whereas corporate homogenized radiated antibiotic laden stuff will weaken your immune system while simultaneously reduce those bugs you come into contact with. Perfect example is the difference between organic and Yoplait/Dannon type yogurts.
      Studies have shown people growing up on farms around animals and/or having pets have stronger immune systems and fewer allergies…

      • AC

        i was thinking in extreme isolated cases, such as native americans suddenly being exposed to the flu (or similar – i think i’m channeling guns germs and steel here tho i read it so long ago).
        i’m thinking both extremes prob have + and – side effects…..

        • jmpo’lock

          Sure. With today’s modern transportation etc., its virtually impossible to be on an island like that, so we are constantly bombarded by stuff. If you’ve followed the MERS disease story and how it travelled here, it becomes clear. Meanwhile, sadly, we also see things like Monsanto GMOs infecting Latin American heritage crops :(

  • Maggie

    I’m much more concerned about man-made or man-accumulated contaminants than about bacteria. I would love to NOT wash my hands after working in the yard, but when you have elevated lead levels, you can’t just let it ride.

  • Jim

    I am annoyed my wife and my in law have a paranoia on germs. They quarantine all used socks and wash them separately from other clothes.

  • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

    We are too clean, many of us.

    Most bacteria is helpful / good / important for us, and some we are *totally* dependent on for our life.

  • nj_v2

    As far as i can tell, obsession about “cleanliness” has kind of become normalized to the point where anyone questioning it is somehow suspect.

    Humans evolved in an environment with ubiquitous microbes. Efforts at continuous sanitization not only eliminates many beneficial microbes, but alters the body’s ability to defend against some commonly occurring potential pathogens. And, eventually, you get strains resistant to antibiotics.

    In warm months, outdoor swimming often is all the cleaning i need.

    In winter, when not especially active, a shower every few days or so seems to be enough. I know people that shower multiple time a day.

    • jmpo’lock

      As with anything its all about moderation. Middle Age hygiene bad, over clean bad.
      I’ve worked with people in manual labor who shunned deodorant for “organic” reasons….well I’ll just say he certainly smelled “organic”! (My boss ended up firing him cause it upset clients during in-home installations)

      • nj_v2

        I’ve never used “deodorant.” (Odd word when one thinks about it.) And i don’t emit any particularly pungent aromas.

        I think that “natural” body aromas can vary quite a bit depending on individual physiology and diet.

        • jmpo’lock

          I presume you try to pay attention though. We’ve all experienced the over ripe person here and there, and well, its just gross. There was a reason the French developed Eau de Cologne etc. during the Medieval era… (not that that’s any kind of substitute for good hygiene, personally strong perfumes etc. drive me crazy…I run from the detergent aisles of stores!)

          • nj_v2

            I don’t know that “hygiene,” at least how we usually think about it, fully explains the odor thing.

            I’ve been in close enough proximity to people that i’m pretty sure shower regularly, seem to have a reasonable diet, don’t smoke, etc. whose breath seems downright toxic.

            I wonder what it is about one’s physiology that could account for this.

  • jmpo’lock

    Hey! Talk about the Elephant in the room! How’d she smell? How’d she feel? i.e. greasy skin, dander etc.

  • Paul Meade

    While there is probably some relationship between altering the “normal” microbiome and the increased incidence of pathogenic bacteria (MRSA, C-Difficile, etc.), I still hope food handlers and health care workers continue washing their hands before touching patients. Cleanliness still has its place.

    • J__o__h__n

      Too bad the handwashing is usually negated when they touch the bathroom door on the way out. I don’t know why they don’t design them to open outwards.

  • Jo Bleaux

    In the 60s, my mother, who had had a couple of microbiology classes, had the foresight to not jump on the Phisohex bandwagon, and believed that we had to get dirty to build our immune systems.

  • AC

    i’ve always wondered why you see hospital/medial staff on the subway heading to work in their scrubs…that always seemed counter-intuitive

  • Cratha Harris

    Since they were born, my 4 year old twin boys have been bathed about once per month (sometimes less frequently). Why? They didn’t like baths in the beginning; now its usually just too much work. They are thriving, healthy, rarely sick – no doctors visits in the last two years other than required annual. (I tried to call, your line busy).

  • Swampy

    2 points:
    How much does our “personal bacteria” contribute to why Americans so often get sick in places like Mexico and India.
    Also, wasn’t there a study on “human pheromones”. It studied the notion that our smell attracts members of the opposite sex who are the most genetically diverse.

  • J__o__h__n

    The worst of both worlds – people who don’t shower and then douse themselves in cologne.

    • AC


  • nj_v2

    Great topic for a show, btw!

    (Aside: Ever notice how the right-wing troll pose disappears for non-political topics? Incurious? Not covered in their contract?)

    • J__o__h__n

      Even worse are the one issue people who come out the woodwork for their pet topic and are extremist and disagreeable. Fortunately they go away after that show.

      • nj_v2

        Especially with any show having anything to do with guns. The NRA must have some media-watch/alert the hacks system. Same with genetic engineering. Seen it on this and other forums.

  • David

    I am one of the many people who suffers from Hidradenitis Suppurativa, a chronic, painful skin condition wherein sweat glands get infected and swell up, sometimes to the size of a golf ball. Antibacterial soap with Triclosan is the ONLY kind of soap that keeps outbreaks at bay. If Triclosan is banned, does that mean persons with HS will have to pay an arm and a leg for prescription soap?

  • http://argonnechronicles.blogspot.com/ Dee

    Interesting discussion. I have a 12 year old and I definitely don’t have him bathe daily and haven’t ever. He does need a bath and a hair wash about twice a week. As he becomes a hormonal teenager, that may change. For myself, I do bathe daily. I use makeup and perfume and I use gel in my hair. If I didn’t use any of those things, I might be able to bathe less often. But using those…it just builds up too much. I do believe that too much clean is too much. A friend once yelled at me for touching her baby’s hand for fear of the germs she would ingest. We have gotten crazy over germs. I have coworkers who are so terrified of germs they won’t touch hardly anything. And I’m the healthier one. My son, too, rarely gets sick.

  • Scott B

    It’s finding a balance. I only use something like hand sanitizer when I’ve handled something I know is covered in bad germs and can’t get to some soap and water. But I don’t feel the need to shower every day, either, like when I showered the day before and haven’t done anything to get grimy and stinky the day before.

    • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

      Some of the ‘dirtiest’ things are the telephone and doorknobs.

      • jmpo’lock

        Computer mouse and keyboards we’re all on right now!

      • AC

        omg – those filthy, filthy touch screens at the grocery stores…..you can only hope when you touch those, esp if it’s a little wet with something that looks like it might have come from the meat section…..:(

      • nj_v2

        I think the worst are probably faucets, and especially faucets in public restrooms. Also the interior door knobs/levers in those same bathrooms.

        Think about the sequence of events before a hand reaches those items in that context.

        Designers and facilities managers seem to be realizing this as i’m noticing more and more motion-activation (faucets, paper-towel dispensers, etc.) coming into play.

  • Maggie

    We bathe the baby about once a week, and mostly that means putting her under the shower or letting her play in the bath. We don’t soap her up. We wipe off her hands and feet more often, though, again because we have concerns about contaminants like lead.

  • Scott B

    The problem comes from people that misconstrue the idea of making their body’s immune system more resistant to bad bacteria from not overusing soap and such, and it making them immune from viruses that cause measles, polio, poxes, etc, where only inoculation will make one immune.

    • kenrubenstein

      Mnnn, not so much. You have a bit of learnin’ to do pardner.

  • Yar

    You are what your eat.

  • Maggie

    When I was pregnant, I was so afraid of getting sick that I washed my hands obsessively. After several months, my hands started freaking out – cracking, bleeding, blistering. My dermatologist says I gave myself eczema with all the handwashing. It’s been more than six months, and I’m still trying to repair the damage.

  • http://batman-news.com Cary Zigrossi

    I have severe migraine reactions to cologne, perfume, even some deodorants (think the teenage popular Axe products). I have had to beg my co-workers to just use shower and soap, and still some of them wear scents that make me sick. Why are some people so addicted to their scents? I don’t know. Smokers try to cover the smoke smell, but the answer to that is obvious.

    • Maggie

      I have a friend with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, and she can barely leave the house. It’s awful. I hope your reactions aren’t as bad as that, but regardless, I feel for you – people just aren’t aware and sensitive to this issue.

      • http://batman-news.com Cary Zigrossi

        Thank you, but that’s just what I have. I have an EEOC complaint against NYS, as my employer they have not given me any accomodation. Actually have given the people that wear cologne private offices, so that they now walk past me, make me sick, and then go into their office where they have the ability to close the door, open the window and turn off the flourescent lights.

    • jmpo’lock

      Totally agree! I can’t stand air “fresheners” and detergents. Car “pine trees’ etc., all NASTY.
      As I said below, I repeat: I always run from the detergent/cleaner aisles of stores.. they make me sick to the stomach.

      Once one has shifted to a low faux smell lifestyle two things happen. 1) you begin to actually smell more acutely, 2) therefore are more offended by the over the top artificial masking/perfuming unnatural crap!

      • J__o__h__n

        I use the washers in the basement of my apartment building and I hate having to mop up the puddle of stinking fabric softener that I don’t want all over my clothes. It negates my bothering to buy scent free detergent.

        • jmpo’lock

          I hear you. Since I’ve gone perfume/scent free, my sense of smell has increased so much that I can smell it on peoples’ clothes when they enter a room, I can smell whether the “freshener” trees in a passing car are “vanillaroma” or “pine” scented, I can smell a dryer vent from a quarter mile away…but of course it conversely means I can smell the positive things as well; details of a fine wine, wild herbs and plants..incl. a newly lit spliff a quarter mile away :)

    • nj_v2

      I’ve shaken hands with people that have so doused themselves with perfume, cologne, or whatever, that, hours later, i can still smell it on my hand.

      Those kinds of aromas don’t really sicken me, but i find them somewhere between annoying/distracting/repulsive.

      Even many soaps leave a lingering, often cloying aroma. Most of the Dr. Bronner’s soaps, don’t, though. They are pleasantly scented during use, but the small doesn’t linger. They use natural plant oils.

      • DWilliams

        Some people put a few drops of aftershave on their hands then pat it on their face just before leaving the house. That is why the scent transfers with a handshake.

    • Michele Briere

      I have severe allergies so I have to get cleaners that are scent free, too. Someone wearing perfume walks by me and my sinuses blow up. Spices don’t bother me much, but florals are killer.

      Also, I used to work at a cancer research clinic and learned that people on chemo are extremely sensitive to odors, also, because the chemo kills nose hairs which usually blocks odors.

  • nj_v2

    Weak explanation by the guest of what soap does. “It washes away dirt.”

    How Soap Cleans
    Soap is an Emulsifier

  • Rick Evans

    John Donvan asked what soap does. Soap acts as a surfactant. That is soap molecules coat the dirt and dead skin removed from your skin by rubbing and suspends it in water keeping it from re-sticking to your skin.

  • homebuilding

    Simply, we are running out of water…..

    –so, flush a lot less (actually human urine sprinkled across your lawn will make it greener!)

    –irrigate your lawn a lot less

    –wash your clothes a lot less (I leave up the lid and when the washing is done, I spin and drip dry–no water wasting rinse cycle

    –almost no one sweats so much that laundering after one wearing is required

    –grow a beard or shave your legs a lot less

    –spot wash various clothes, especially collars and knees……use an old toothbrush to work soap used into any grime

    –wash your car with a soft brush and a soap bucket (many brands make a special soap–and you need only a tablespoon). I don’t even rinse and just wipe the windows–you’d never know it.

    –check into gray water disposal (in some areas, it’s against the law–change it ! )

    –lose a lot of very light clothes

    –don’t be nearly so compulsive about dish rinsing–all those myths about a diarrhea risk are vastly overblown

    –OK, fine….shower and shampoo a bit less, too

    Most of all, don’t follow the entreaties of the advertising community (you are just fattening another CEOs wallet)

    • http://hammernews.com/ hammermann

      Are you kidding- leaving detergent in your clothes is the best way to get rashes and allergies- very bad stuff. In fact, I do extended rinse if I can find it- I’ve scratched myself bloody from detergent. Many fools will use 3x too much to start with which accumulates for next people (need very little for limited water front-loaders- esp in Europe)

  • MadMarkTheCodeWarrior

    Dog owners are found to be healthier than people without dogs, even after accounting for the positve impact of walking their faithful friends. I exercised a lot before getting our dog and got sick regularly. Since getting them I almost never get sick. It certainly not from obsessive hygiene I assure you… No antibacterial soaps and no obsessive hand washing. It’s just the miracle of life as we were intended to embrace it!

    • http://hammernews.com/ hammermann

      Thats cause somebody loves you unconditionally- that’ll add 10 years livespan alone. Truth is, in deadly diseases, they almost all come from out domesticated animals- chickens, cows, pigs, dogs, cats

  • HonestDebate1

    I feel sure that I am not too clean.

  • Sy2502

    It is a fact that the fundamental rules of hygiene have dramatically cut down in diseases like typhoid, cholera, etc which used to kill so many people. Having done that, some people are taking it a bit too far, which presents its own sets of problems as we are now finding out that all the antibacterial products so popular these days actually produce super-bugs.

  • JGC

    I had a college roommate who used to spray her sweatpants and t-shirts with Lysol to eke out a few more weeks of wear until a trip to the laundromat. Was she on to something?

    • http://hammernews.com/ hammermann

      Only do that for emergency underwear when out of clean in travel, but it works. Just gotta make sure it DRIES!!!!!!

  • tbphkm33

    I do believe people tend to be overly clean in the US – daily long showers with a multitude of products is a bit much.

    Although, on a number of occasions, being invited to dinner at friends houses I have been “troubled.” When it comes to the kitchen and cooking, people are clueless. Things like handling raw chicken, then after a quick rinse in cool water, using the same chopping board to prepare the salad??? I am not a germaphobe, but use one’s head – its not rocket science.

  • roland lucas

    Good story. My germophobia has been waning over the past 5 years. No longer carry purel in my pocket, but still taking 2 showers a day.

  • ExcellentNews

    The problem is not so much with frequent washing. The problem is the smorgasboard of “aromatic” organic compounds that cosmetics manufacturers put in their products for marketing purposes.

  • http://www.google.com Big Brother

    Will Obama visit my grandmother and tell her why it costs her $1,500 per month to keep her house at 74 degrees?

  • LucyBlakeesas

    my buddy’s sister makes $87 every hour on the internet
    . She has been unemployed for 6 months but last month her payment was $19402
    just working on the internet for a few hours. go right here M­o­n­e­y­d­u­t­i­e­s­.­C­O­M­

  • ganesh

    In South india, people use something called shikakai whenever they take a oil bath. the oil bath used to be a weekend ritual in many families.

    What is shikakai? this link explains


    The oil used is usually heated sesame oil with some pepper corn

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