Being a germaphobe can increase your risk of infection
Are you a germaphobe that’s constantly using antibacterial soap or hand sanitizer to clean your hands? While you may think you’re preventing the spread of germs, you might be missing the mark on the best way to protect your body from germs… washing your hands with plain old soap and water. But to better understand how to maintain a healthy immune system, let’s start with how our daily exposure to microorganisms impacts our health. That’s important because the mindset that we need to eliminate our exposure to germs is futile and dangerous.
We Live In a World Full of Microorganisms
According to a 2016 study by University of Indiana biologists Kenneth J. Locey and Jay T. Lennon, there are about one trillion species of microbes on the Earth, and 99.999 percent of them have yet to be discovered. So it’s safe to say our world is dominated by microorganisms.
These microorganisms are not only nice enough to allow us to coexist with them, they actually help us to thrive. We have over 600 species of microbes just in our mouths and one drop of saliva has literally thousands of bacteria in it. To take it a step further, our digestive system from our mouth to the anus contains approximately five pounds of bacteria. That’s heavier than our own liver! Our skin is also covered in microbes. The reality is we have about ten times the amount of bacteria in our bodies than we have cells of our body.
Many of the microorganisms on and in our bodies help us to thrive by assisting in digestion, feeding the cells of our intestinal system, creating important vitamins our bodies can’t produce and so much more.
A World Void of Microbes Can Cause More Problems Than It Helps
Antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizers have been common household items for years. We get that. This isn’t new information. But the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus and the corresponding fear built up by the media has caused people to become excessively germaphobic. Many are trying to create a world void of microbes. But the increased use of these products may be setting us up for a different challenge in the future. That’s because our society lacks knowledge (and media fails to properly report) on how our bodies interact with microbes. Shining light on this is vital as our society works to maximize our immune function and help prevent the severity and spread of viral infections.
What Soap Should I Use to Prevent COVID-19 Spread?
COVID-19 is a virus that is basically genetic material wrapped in a fat layer where washing your hands with good old fashioned soap and water for 20 seconds will work to destroy the virus. This is confirmed by the CDC’s recommendation for proper handwashing techniques. Soap peels away the outer fat layer of the virus and exposes the genetic material and the virus simply falls apart. If you do not have the ability to wash your hands with soap and water, then you can use 60% or higher alcohol hand sanitizer. Although hand sanitizer doesn’t necessarily kill viruses, it does damage the RNA of the virus so it can’t reproduce itself until you get to a place where you can wash your hands.
Swap Out Your Antimicrobial Solutions
So should you toss out your antimicrobial solutions? The short answer is yes. When we use antibacterial soaps, we kill off all the bacteria on our skin except the ones that are resistant to the chemical in the soap. That means when using these chemical soaps, all healthy bacteria die and the resilient bacteria begin to dominate, creating unhealthy and unbalanced flora on your skin.
The same holds true for antibacterial mouthwash. This is also another great example on why we should respect the microbes in our environment instead of trying to eliminate them. We all have about 600 bacteria in our mouth. When you use an antibacterial mouthwash to help freshen your breath, you kill off the good bacteria as well as the bad. Losing this good bacteria or “flora” can change the pH balance in your mouth and create an environment that becomes dominated by harmful bacteria.
To compound matters, this can actually cause worse breath than before you used the product to freshen it. Continued bad breath causes people to buy more mouthwash. They become addicted to gargling with the solution to freshen breath. The bad news is that overuse of mouthwash simply makes the flora imbalance of worse, making your breath worse and your need to eliminate it greater. See the vicious cycle here? Healthy microbes matter.
Don’t Try to Kill All Bacteria: Just Use Common Sense
To reduce the risk of spreading viruses, wash your hands with plain soap and water for twenty seconds throughout the day and avoid touching your face. This will minimize your risk of transmission. Also, look into eliminating your use of antimicrobial or antibacterial soaps, creams, mouthwashes, etc. This allows us to continue the healthy relationships humans have enjoyed with microbes for thousands of years.
Resources Scaling laws predict global microbial diversity. Kenneth J. Locey and Jay T. Lennon. 2016. When and How to Wash Your Hands. Center for Disease Control. 2020