Childrearing

Lazy Mommy Vindication: All That Antibacterial Soap Is Wrecking Kids’ Immune Systems

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My daughter loves dirt. She could play in a pile of dirt for hours. She’s the kid who eats things after she drops them on the floor. She’s the child who never considers the possible germs on anything, whether it be a public drinking fountain or a bug crawling on the ground. My little girl comes home with plenty of stains on her clothes and even a couple band-aids on her arms and legs. And I’m completely fine with it!

I feel like I can finally admit, I have never been an antibacterial kind of mom. You know the ones who carry around that gel like their lives depend on it. They wipe down every toy in the dentist waiting room before their kids can touch them. Their children don’t sit in the grass, they sit at a pre-sanitized picnic table. It’s the mom who gasps in horror when my daughter starts talking about the five-second rule. I’ve never been this mom. And today, I found out that I can be proud of that fact!

Today, researchers released a study showing that antibacterial soaps, among other hygiene-related products, effect the way children’s immune systems develop. Basically, we’re making our kids too clean. Jessica Savage, an allergy and immunology fellow at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center and lead investigator in this study said, “The link between allergy risk and antimicrobial exposure suggests that these agents may disrupt the delicate balance between beneficial and bad bacteria in the body and lead to immune system dysregulation, which in turn raises the risk of allergies.”

Most see the study as a confirmation for the “hygiene hypothesis,” which suggests that the rise in allergies in the developed world comes from our lack of exposure to any germs whatsoever. This makes it harder for our body to tell the difference between actual threats and simple foreign pathogens like pet dander, pollen or certain foods.

With research showing that children with higher levels of antimicrobial in their system were at “twice the risk of environmental allergies” as children with lower levels, it’s going to be hard to dispute the hygiene hypothesis. And moms like me who were pretty lax with all those anti-germ rules can feel a little more confident today than they did yesterday.

In light of this research, it’s interesting to note that other recent studies showed city kids were more likely to develop food allergies. Could it be that lack of germ-paranoia is just a byproduct of growing up in the Midwest and having parents who lived on farms in their younger years? Is this general acceptance of dirt and the outdoors whats keeping children raise in the country from having as many problems as their metropolitan peers?

That’s complete conjecture. I have no proof there. But I do have proof that my daughter will be just fine if I don’t wipe off everything she ever touches with an antibacterial wipe, and that’s good enough for me!

(Photo: Stephanie Frey/Shutterstock)

11 Comments

  1. Andrea

    June 20, 2012 at 1:03 pm

    I’ve known this from day 1. It’s the reason we have sickly toddlers and probably the reason why so many “allergies” are happening. We don’t expose our children to enough stuff to build up their immune systems. When they were toddlers my kids played in the dirt, I never sanitized anything, and I only insisting on washing hands after bathroom and before eating. Beyond that the only time they were clean was right after bath once a day, right before bedtime.

    I never had sick kids beyond one or two sniffles and ear infections.

  2. Lilac

    June 20, 2012 at 2:38 pm

    I believe this. I used to play in swamp water and stream catching fogs and stuff. Kids need to be kids not kept in mommy sterilize areas.

  3. Whitney

    June 20, 2012 at 7:02 pm

    My youngest son has food allergies that presented right after birth (we have a long family history of those). HOWEVER, he is one of the healthiest kids I know. He also eats dirt. Seriously. Since he could walk, he’s loved playing in the backyard and eating dirt. And he hasn’t developed any more allergies.

    When I was working, my boss had a son right around the time as my oldest was born. We’d bring them in the office. I’d let him crawl around the floor and just rinsed off pacifiers if they fell on the ground. When my boss brought in her son, she’d wipe the entire office down with Clorox wipes, and everyone had to use the antibacterial gel before coming anywhere near him. And if anything fell on the floor, he didn’t get it until they went back home.

    Both boys were in day care, she and I ate similar type diets, were exposed to basically the same people for most of the time (making it a fairly good comparison)… but my son was never sick, and her son had multiple ear infections, multiple cases of bronchitis, colds and even the flu. That was in the span of two years- so it seemed clear to me that the over-sterilizing was to blame.

    Current tally? My oldest is six and has probably only had three major illnesses. My youngest (the dirt eater) is four and had bronchitis once. Yeah, a little dirt really doesn’t hurt.

  4. Eileen

    June 20, 2012 at 10:40 pm

    My mom never ever bought anything that said “antibacterial,” partly because she pointed out it’s kind of a waste of money – regular soap’ll do that just fine, and washing your hands (which we did before eating and after using the toilet) will actually get stuff OFF them – and partly because I think she’s afraid of superbugs. I get sick approximately twice a year.

  5. QueenBee

    June 21, 2012 at 1:30 am

    To me it’s basically very simple:
    I see our immune system as an army of footsoldiers. And like every other regular soldier, they need a little practise from time to time to be able to do their jobs and also to be able to distinguish friend and ally from foe. Too much hygiene prevents that practise.

  6. Katie

    June 21, 2012 at 3:41 am

    I believe it. We live in a semi-rural area with lots of farms and dirt and BUGS. Oh lord do we have bugs.

    I know of two kids in Sage’s entire school who have allergies at least, the allergy warning in the school office only has two kids on there as “allergy sufferers”, thats out of 200-odd kids.

    That actually has got me thinking, I come from a large family, and all of my brothers and sister’s kids who have allergies or get sick very often do live in the inner city, and yes, their parents are germ-a-phobes.

  7. Erica { EricaDHouse.com }

    June 21, 2012 at 10:42 am

    This reminds me of one of my FAVORITE articles ever that I make all my students read in General Psychology & Human Growth and Development. “A Nation of Whimps” http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200411/nation-wimps

    http://www.EricaDHouse.com

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