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There’s Such a Thing as ‘Too Clean’

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May 28, 2013

This article originally appeared in The New York Times on May 27, 2013.

By Dr. Ruchi Gupta

Cleanliness is important for good health. We've known this since the pioneering work on microbes of Ignac Semmelweis, Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister.

However, a good thing can often go too far, and in our modern society of nonstop media and product marketing, this might be what has happened to the idea of cleanliness. Resources for avoiding bacteria have increased dramatically. We are surrounded by antibacterial soaps and cleansers. Kids are often not allowed to play in public sandboxes out of the fear of them getting too dirty. The popularity of electronic games and television has also decreased outdoor playing time enjoyed by prior generations. Furthermore, exposure to multiple pets and animals is decreasing, especially with more families living in urban metropolitan areas.

These well-intentioned behaviors may have led to avoidance of germs and disease, but the unwanted consequence may be a concomitant decrease in the ‘good’ bacteria. Not all germs are bad! In fact, our bodies are dependent on the work of some good bacteria to survive and thrive, particularly in our digestive tracts. Such bacteria in our guts help us digest food and serve to educate our immune system. Achieving ultimate cleanliness today may ultimately result in weaker and less diversified bacterial flora in our bodies, leading to an altered immune system that ‘rejects’ friendly food.

“Everything in moderation” was a saying I grew up hearing from my parents. Have we lost this when it comes to cleanliness? I live in the middle of a large city, and my husband and I frequently joke about how "sheltered" our kids are from the outdoor elements. And yes, both our kids have allergies.

- Dr. Ruchi Gupta is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University.