Can you wash your hands too much?

I’ve spent the summer on the east coast alongside my classmate Stephan, while we do internships for school. Though we have similar interests in veterinary medicine, we have very different philosophies about food safety. I am a bit like Monk, at times going overboard on cleanliness and my tendency to be a “germaphobe” with excessive handwashing.

Stephan represents the other side of the spectrum, more of a “the more bugs I’m exposed to, the more my immunity builds.” This is definitely a valid viewpoint. Hand sanitizer opponents say that antibacterial soaps and gels may cause more harm than good. They remove bad bacteria, but can also remove the good bacteria, the bacteria that protect skin surfaces from the bad bacteria. Antibacterials may also help breed drug-resistant bacteria.

It’s a tricky tightrope to walk. Washing your hands before eating is a good way to reduce your risk of foodborne illness, but removing too much beneficial bacteria from skin surfaces or gut can leave the body more susceptible to harmful bacteria and may cause allergic or autoimmune reactions.

The bottom line is that regular soap works great in moderation, and it should always be used before consuming food or sticking your fingers in your mouth. What kind of soap is best? I tend to lean towards the foaming liquid soap, mostly because it comes in great scents, but basically soap is better than no soap. Follow Doug’s mantra to wash your hands and don’t eat poop.

Casey Jacob: Dr. Phil’s germaphobic mom

On Dr. Phil’s “Ask the Doctor” segment today(1), a team of medical professionals talked with a woman who is seriously afraid of germs. Jennifer, who washes her hands so much that they are constantly cracked and bleeding—including after opening the mail or putting in a rented movie— said this fear developed after seeing what grew from a swab of her own skin in a microbiology class.

There were multiple specimens alive and well in Jennifer’s house (as with most any house), according to swabs by microbiologist Carolyn Jacobs, who sampled several frequently contacted surfaces, such as light switches and the TV remote. In the kitchen, she targeted the sink and what she felt was one of the dirtiest areas in the home: the can opener.

The show’s M.D. identified bacillus and staphylococcus strains in samples from the can opener, but claimed they were “completely benign and can’t hurt you at all.” To prove his point, he grabbed a spoonful of the red stuff in the dish in front of him and smiled as he took a bite. Fortunately, it was only red Jell-O.

However, he reasoned, human immune systems serve a purpose and are meant to encounter microbes in everyday life. Jennifer admits, “I have this huge fear of my (six-month-old) daughter getting sick and dying,” from the bacteria and viruses she knows are everywhere.

The M.D. is right in saying that human bodies are built to deal with microorganisms—both harmful and benign. However, as in the case of consuming raw milk, some members of society are better equipped for them than others, and children may not be as well prepared to fight off tough pathogens.

Jennifer is right to worry… a little.

That attitude of compulsive cleanliness could do a lot of good for food handlers in the farm-to-fork distribution chain that lie beyond mom’s kitchen: fry cooks, butchers, servers, fruit pickers, slaughterhouse managers, and even even cheerleaders at lemonade stands. Something to think about.

Casey Jacob is the married version of former barfblogger Casey Wilkinson, and continues to work with Doug in various capacities.