Is there such a thing as “too clean”?

The development of good personal hygiene habits represents a revolution in society from the disease-filled dark ages, when European and early American societies rarely bathed. People wore perfumes and pomades to hide the bad odors. The modern fragrance industry actually stemmed from the need to cover up the terrible smell of wearing gloves and other garments made with tanning leathers. People perfumed leather goods to counteract these unpleasant smells.

Many of the basic ingredients used in the hygiene industry to hide odors actually offer health benefits when used in their natural forms. These oils, such as lavender, derive from plants. You can apply them topically so the skin absorbs them. Or you can inhale them through nasal passages and respiratory tracts.

Of course, staying clean is good for your health, and for society as a whole. And the company that I mentioned recently — Proctor & Gamble — has done more than the U.S. government to control infectious disease, simply by making soaps, detergent and hygiene products over the past century that are accessible and affordable to everyone. Through thick and thin, depression and war, who has ever given up buying soap and toothpaste?

But today, many Americans are hyper-obsessed with cleanliness and avoiding germs. Annually, we spend $3.1 billion on soaps and $4.3 billion on shampoos. And we spend about $120 million per year on hand sanitizers. But is there such as thing as too clean for your own good?

According to the science, yes.

Many Americans too obsessed with fighting germs

Taking your personal cleanliness too far can actually harm your health and wellness.

For example, you may worry about warding off germs during cold and flu season. And rightly so. But you never want to resort to using antibacterial hand sanitizers that contain triclosan. (Unfortunately, manufacturers also slip this toxic chemical into other personal hygiene products, so be sure to read labels and avoid any item that contains it.)

Washing with plain soap and water will do. And it won’t create dangerous, resistant bacteria in the environment. It’s especially important to remember this simple tip now — as we get into the fall season, when people crowd into small, indoor spaces.

At the height of cold and flu season, I also recommend washing your face with soap and water after spending time in crowds. And carry a simple water and alcohol-based hand sanitizer for when you can’t get to a sink to wash up.

Now, let’s move on to the bigger issue…literally.

Showering ourselves sick?

People in the U.S. shower an average of seven times per week. But is that really necessary?

In Britain, China, and Japan, the average is more like five times per week. (Despite the rumors, people in France and Spain also shower about once per day, but they only shampoo once or twice per week.)

Studies show most people do NOT need to shower every day. Hot showers wash off natural skin and hair oils — which protect the skin and scalp. They also leave the skin and scalp dry and irritated. Showering every other day is sufficient to wash off dead skin cells, oxidized body oils, and excess bacteria, which can contribute to body odor, acne and rashes.

But remember — you should never use antibacterial soap. You don’t want to kill and wash away all the normal bacteria on your skin, which belong to your “microbiome.” Yes, your skin has a microbiome too, with “good” bacteria that protect against infections. The good skin bacteria have a host of other health benefits as well — just as probiotics in the gut do.

Of course, the problems with personal hygiene practices don’t stop when you step out of the shower…

Deodorants contain human toxins

After toweling off, most Americans smear their armpits with deodorants and antiperspirants. But these practices really are “the pits” when it comes to your health.

Research shows that antiperspirants containing aluminum may have cancer-causing effects, particularly in adjacent breast tissue, as well neurotoxic effects. My colleague Nobel laureate Carlton Gajdusek found strong evidence about the dangers of aluminum.

I worked with Gajdusek at the National Institutes of Health during the 1990s on our public health education project with former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. Gajdusek shared the Nobel Prize in 1976 for discovering the slow-virus infections that cause dementia in the highlands of Papua-New Guinea.

At the time, Gajdusek was also studying people who lived on the island of Nauru in the South Pacific. They were a small population living literally on a big pile of bauxite (aluminum ore) in the middle of the ocean. And they had the highest rates of dementia and other neurological diseases of anywhere in the world.

So save the aluminum for automobile wheels in racing pit stops, and stop using it on your armpits.

Deodorants, detergents and soaps can also contain parabens, phthalates and other chemicals. These chemicals can cause hormone disruptions. And they also get into the environment.

Sink your teeth into a simpler routine

Maybe your mother told you to brush your teeth after every meal. But brushing right after a meal or snack can actually cause damage.

You see, many healthy foods are acidic, such as coffee, citrus fruits, pineapples, and pickles. The acid does erode the enamel layer protecting the dentin of your teeth. But brushing right away pushes, grinds and rubs these acids into your teeth. Just wait about an hour after eating before rushing to the sink to brush your teeth.

What about flossing? I can’t even tell you how many rants dental hygienists have almost literally shoved down my throat over the decades about flossing. Turns out, their ranting is all floss.

In fact, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force’s review of evidence found that flossing teeth is a complete waste of time.

I remember what my grandparents did, back before everyone started carrying around a toothbrush in their pocket. They rinsed their mouths with a little water or saltwater (not a harsh mouthwash containing chemicals) after meals. It is a gentler way of rinsing away food particles and bacteria.

A little common sense goes a long way…

Of course, you can get natural soaps, deodorants, toothpastes, and other personal hygiene products without artificial chemicals almost everywhere. As with your foods, just check the ingredients. If you see some toxic, unpronounceable antiseptic-like ingredient, leave it alone.

The idea is not to kill every living thing in sight — but to simply wash and rinse away excess bacteria.


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