Confusion about when cleanliness matters is making us ill

Too clean or not too clean? Public health experts reveal the nine moments when you're most likely to be infected by harmful bacteria

A lack of understanding about hygiene is putting our health at risk, research has found.


Hygiene in the home and everyday life is vital for protecting the public’s health by preventing the spread of harmful microbes and so reducing the risks of contracting infectious diseases.


But health chiefs from the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) have found that a misconception that dirt is the source of harmful bugs is leading to people focusing on the wrong type of cleaning.


Misunderstanding has arisen because, on the one hand we are being told that we need exposure to microbes to build up the healthy bacteria in our gut and on our skin but on the other we are told we must not relax standards of hygiene.

Cleaning surfaces is one of the most important ways to stop stomach bugs and colds from spreading

Cleaning surfaces is one of the most important ways to stop stomach bugs and colds from spreading

The RSPH survey found a worrying one in four (23%) believed hygiene in the home was not important in the belief that children need to be exposed to harmful germs to build their immune system.


Experts say the best way to be hygienic and allow our good bacteria to thrive is to practise targeted hygiene – implementing the correct cleaning techniques at the most crucial moments.


Professor Sally Bloomfield of London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “The problem is that we are not sure what being hygienic means and don’t really understand the difference between hygiene and 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.


"To achieve change we have to blow the myth about being too clean.


"This misbelief has persisted since the hygiene hypothesis emerged – that cleanliness is linked to rising allergies in children.


"We now know that the exposure children need is not to infectious diseases, but microbes we share with friends and family in our natural environment.”


Professor Lisa Ackerley, RSPH Trustee and food hygiene expert, added: “An obvious example of targeted hygiene is when we are handling raw poultry.



"After preparation, the places which must be cleaned and disinfected are our hands and anything our hands or the chicken has touched, including the chopping board, knife and cleaning cloth.


"If we clean immediately in a targeted manner at risk moments, the risk is contained and we have broken the journey of the germ.”


To address the confusion, journal 'Perspective in Public Health' has published nine moments at which it is vital to practise good hygiene in daily life – the times when harmful microbes are most likely to be spread:

  1. During food handling
  2. Whilst eating with fingers
  3. Using the toilet and changing a nappy
  4. Coughing, sneezing and nose blowing
  5. Touching surfaces frequently touched by other people
  6. Handling and laundering ‘dirty’ clothing and household linens
  7. Caring for domestic animals
  8. Handling and disposing of refuse
  9. Caring for an infected family member

Source: Examiner Live

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