As hand soap, cleaning products and sanitizer fly off store shelves, many people may find themselves thinking about hygiene more than ever.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, handwashing is one of the best ways to protect yourself and your family from getting sick. Handwashing paired with social distancing, wearing a mask and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces are our best defenses against COVID-19.
But can being too clean have negative affects on our health and immune system?
“While we do believe our immune system is influenced by both the environment and infectious exposures, it happens before we are born or during early childhood,” explained Dr. Carl Lauter, Beaumont allergist and immunologist. “As we grow up, our immune system grows up, too, and the influences become less and less profound.”
The concerns over being too clean stem from the hygiene hypothesis, a theory first introduced in the 1980s based on research that indicated children who are kept in very clean environments have a higher rate of hay fever, asthma and a wide range of other conditions.
Dr. Lauter said that while scientific data does show the environment can have a strong influence on our immune system as young children, it’s not something we need to worry about as adults.
“Wearing a mask and washing your hands a lot, forget it. That's not going to change your immune system,” he said.
If you do have small children right now and are concerned about the development of their immune system, Dr. Lauter explains that keeping your child safe while not going overboard is your best option.
“As a general rule, excessive cleanliness to the point of obsessive compulsion is probably not a good idea,” Dr. Lauter said. “On the other hand, don't go out and dip the kid in the sewer and think that that's going to be good for their immune system. Common sense has to prevail.”
Staying healthy vs. boosting your immune system
Keeping your body healthy is a good idea no matter what the circumstances. Exercise, sleep, eating healthy and reducing stress are all important habits we should be practicing daily.
But if you’re looking for a quick boost to your immune system, Dr. Lauter says you shouldn’t get your hopes up.
“You don't get better than normal immunity by taking supplements or eating a special diet,” he said. “If you see an ad for something claiming it will boost your immunity, run the other way. It's a lie. It's fake. And they can't do it.”
Dr. Lauter’s advice is to stop worrying about how cleanliness is affecting your immune system and worry more about preventing yourself from getting sick.
“You shouldn’t avoid basic precautions like wearing a mask, cleaning regularly and practicing proper hygiene because you think they are somehow harmful to your immune system,” he said. “Doing those things is our best defense against COVID-19.”