Learn to like it dirty: why hand sanitisers are bad for you

World

Learn to like it dirty: why hand sanitisers are bad for you

There's a reason why both allergies and sales of hand sanitisers have seen a steep rise

Maria Lally


It’s no secret that Donald Trump is a fan of Fox News, the American news channel.
However, one of its hosts, Pete Hegseth, probably won’t be getting a handshake from the president any time soon.
“I don’t really wash my hands, ever,” Hegseth announced on air this week. “Germs are not a real thing. I can’t see them, therefore they’re not real.”
A self-confessed “germaphobe”, Trump has already admitted avoiding handshakes, and is regularly caught on camera being handed small bottles of hand sanitiser by White House staff.
Robbie Williams was caught on camera doing the same after performing Auld Lang Syne with audience members during a New Year’s Eve gig at Westminster’s Central Hall.
But Trump and Williams are far from alone. Sales of hand sanitisers have rocketed in the last 10 years, along with antibacterial hand soaps and wipes, and recent data from Mintel found a third of us buy a bottle of hand sanitiser every month.
No longer the preserve of hospitals (the first hand sanitiser was invented by an American nurse in 1966 after discovering alcohol, when delivered through a gel, removed germs without soap and water), they’re now found in handbags, homes and on desks across the UK.
So, when did we become germ-fighters? And is it doing us any good?
“Of course you should wash your hands regularly,” says Tim Spector, a professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London and author of The Diet Myth.
“However, we seem to have developed an obsession with hygiene that, along with antibiotics, is decreasing our gut diversity and having an impact on our gut health.
“Children who grow up on farms have about a third less allergy risk. People who have pets, and those who come from large, poor families also have fewer allergies. The theory goes, if you’re exposed to microbes from an early age, and have a healthy exposure to them in general, your immune system is exercised and trained to deal with harmful germs.”
Spector says headlines about Sars, swine flu and Ebola have driven fears that we’re under siege from infection, when we should be more worried about the connection between overzealous cleaning and poor gut health, which is linked to obesity and allergies.
“Of course, there’s a middle ground. If you’re a chef, or work in a hospital, or you’re on a cruise where there’s an outbreak of vomiting and diarrhoea, then it pays to be cautious. But the average person just needs to wash their hands with soap and hot water when required.
“I find it scarcely believable that Pete Hegseth doesn’t wash his hands,” says Prof John Oxford, a virologist at the Queen Mary School of Medicine.
“I’ve spent my life looking down microscopes and I can assure you that germs are very real.
“The first doctor who championed hand washing was a Hungarian called Ignaz Semmelweis, who, in 1846, questioned why so many mothers on the maternity ward were dying. He realised doctors were performing autopsies and then delivering babies straight after. He ordered staff to wash their hands and death rates dropped.”
Though soap and hot water will do, there’s now a commercial edge to cleanliness: “One hundred years ago, there weren't hundreds of cleaning products,” says Prof Spector.
“Our natural, friendly, healthy microbes are being washed, scrubbed and sanitised away so our immune systems have nothing to fight.”
Indeed, so-called “clean-fluencers” such as Hinch (1.8m followers) are all over Instagram telling us how to keep our homes spotlessly clean, which, combined with the Marie Kondo effect, means we’re vulnerable to the idea we need to be as clean as possible – and never more so than when it comes to protecting our children’s health.
The child hand sanitiser market (unheard of 20 years ago) is rising. “There’s been a huge rise in all types of allergies among children in the last 40 years,” says Prof Spector.
“Something’s going on. So while hand washing after nappy changing and going to the toilet should be encouraged, children should be allowed to play in the dirt, stroke pets and climb trees without worrying too much.”
Otherwise, the danger is that we’re just “replacing one problem – the risk of infection – for an altogether different one”.
– © The Daily Telegraph

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