The supposedly “healthy” habits that may be making you sick

When it comes to personal hygiene, there are a lot of misconceptions out there. So, today and tomorrow, I’ll reveal eight common “healthy” habits that may actually be making you sick.

  1. Anti-bacterial hand sanitizers and soaps

As I’ve reported before, old-fashioned hand-washing is the best way to prevent the spread of dangerous microbes that cause infections. Plain soap and water are best.

So-called “antibacterial” sanitizers and soaps contain toxic ingredients like triclosan, which cause more problems than they solve. In fact, back in the 90s, working with my daughter Alicia on a school science project, we discovered that these sanitizers can actually promote the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria!

Nobody took us seriously for about 10 years. Until science journalist Gina Bari Kolata interviewed me about the dangers of “antibacterial” agents and mentioned my observations in an article in The New York Times in 2001.

Finally, the science has been more widely accepted. And in 2016, the FDA finally got around to restricting the use of triclosan. (In the meantime, Alicia just graduated with a Master of Science in Environmental Sciences from a Harvard-affiliated program.)

It’s also important to remember that completely avoiding germs altogether can lead to problems with your immune system. A little exposure to good, “clean” dirt — i.e. normal soil, bacteria, and organisms — helps stimulate the immune system and keeps it vigilant against dangerous parasites, pathogens, and toxins.

So, let your kids and grandkids play in the dirt. We shouldn’t live our lives in perfectly sterile conditions. Save that for hospitals and surgical operating rooms — which cause enough problems as it is —but be keep in mind that even those sterile environments contribute to resistant strains of antibiotic-resistant “super-bugs.”

  1. Hand dryers

I’ve been advising you to use paper towels instead of hot-air hand dryers for years. These inefficient machines blow and spread bacteria all over you and the small enclosed spaces of public bathrooms. Plus, all that hot air can leave your hands feeing dry and chapped — if you even have the patience to go through the whole noisy process.

Some environmentalists try to claim these machines are more environmentally friendly and efficient than using a paper towel.

But I’m not so sure…

These high-intensity blowers actually use a lot of power, which causes its own environmental footprint. Just using one paper towel is more efficient and ecologically friendly. Plus, you can use the paper towel to open the door while exiting, so you don’t contaminate yourself all over again. Not to mention, they dry better!

  1. Kitchen sponges

According to a recent study, kitchen sponges contain more germs than you typically find in a toilet bowl. I recommend stocking up on reusable dishcloths, like those your grandmother probably used. Just make sure to throw them in the washing machine with your regular laundry every day or so.

After the kitchen sponge, your kitchen sink itself is the second-worst source of potentially harmful bacteria. In fact, dirty dishware in the sink is a breeding ground for unhealthy bacteria, like E. coli and Salmonella. Overall, 50 to 80 percent of bacteria that can cause food-borne infections are bred right in the home.

So, while it may seem more efficient to leave dirty dishes in the sink to accumulate awhile before washing, or rinsing and loading into the dishwasher, you’re much better off keeping your sink clean and empty.

  1. Refrigeration

Foods with high protein and nucleic acid content, like fish and meat, absolutely require refrigeration.

But other foods, such as fruits and vegetables, generally maintain their nutritional value and flavor when stored at room temperature.

Refrigerating or leaving certain produce at room temperature won’t make you sick. However, where you choose to store these foods can make a big difference in how quickly they spoil, as well as whether or not you’re getting their full nutritional value…which can certainly affect your overall health.

According to Barbara P. Klein, a professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, once fruits and vegetables are refrigerated, they can lose up to 50 percent of their vitamin C and nutritional content within one week’s time. Professor Klein also notes that produce you purchase from the grocery store has already spent days in refrigeration during its transport. So, there’s another great reason to buy fresh, locally grown produce, as I always advise.

In particular, foods such as bananas, tomatoes, potatoes, avocados, peppers, onions, basil, and garlic should be stored at room temperature to prevent nutrient loss and early spoilage.

So, go ahead and keep bowls of fruits and vegetables on the kitchen table and counter. They’re a healthy, appetizing snack option, and also make for a colorful spring or summer centerpiece in your home.

While we’re on the subject, you might be interested to learn that, before the invention of refrigeration, even foods we typically assume should be kept cold — like cheese, yogurt, and sauerkraut — were actually kept out in the open.

These foods were preserved not by low temperature, but by fermentation from healthy probiotic bacteria. Indeed, the fermentation process actually increases the nutritional value of these foods — not to mention aiding digestion and boosting the immune system.

Now, as you may know, “bioavailability” is a big topic in the dietary supplement industry. The term describes the absorption of nutrients into the blood and body from the GI tract“.

But in my view, “biome-availability” — my term that describes how nutrients affect the microbiome as a whole — is even more important.

Your microbiome is the environment in your gut where trillions of healthy probiotic bacteria thrive. And science is increasingly supporting the notion that the microbiome plays a significant role in many common health problems — including obesity and Type II diabetes.

So, I encourage you to eat fermented, probiotic-rich foods — like cheese, yogurt, sourdough bread, and sauerkraut, preferably at room temperature — rather than taking useless probiotic supplements. Nowadays, however, it’s all a matter of taste as to whether you prefer to eat these foods cold — they’re safe either cold or at room temperature.

In the meantime, stay tuned for Thursday’s Daily Dispatch, where I’ll expose four more common “healthy” habits that may not be so good for you after all.


  1. “10 Hygiene Habits It’s Time To Ditch,” Healthy Way ( 11/9/2017
  2. “Microbiome analysis and confocal microscopy of used kitchen sponges reveal massive colonization by Acinetobacter, Moraxelaand Chryseobacteriumspecies,” Scientific Reports 2017; 7(5791)
  3. “The Claim: Refrigeration Preserves Nutrients,” New York Times ( 7/27/2009.
  4. “5 Fresh Foods You Shouldn’t Keep in your Refrigerator” EatingWell ( 8/5/2016.