Can being too clean cost you?

By Mona Gohara, MD
Daniel Lai/Getty Images

Germophobia is a common phenomenon-and I am the queen of the germophobes. (P.S. When it comes to germs, chance are you're cleaning all wrong.) You can't go into a department store, gym, restaurant, office, or any other public space without being greeted and ushered out with a wall-mounted hand sanitizer dispenser. I use it compulsively, all to avoid bacteria, viruses, fungus, and other unwelcome microbes. But am I overdoing it? Is my fear of germs actually bad for me? Here are some important facts to know:

Nothing replaces good old hand washing. Before the days of manufactured alcohol-based concoctions, cleansing was the best defense against unwanted germs. Surgeons have scrub rooms, where they meticulously preen their hands before starting a procedure-because a few squirts of hand sanitizer isn't going to take care of it. So if it's an option, choose the sink.

Make sure to check the alcohol content. The label may say that it kills germs, but unless the alcohol content is 60 percent or above, it won't work. You would be surprised how many products (especially those that have a more pleasing fragrance) don't meet that requirement.

There is such a thing as being too clean. The accessibility of these hand sanitizers lends itself to frequent use. A Northwestern University study found that immunity-in this case of this research, children's-can be affected by the use of hand sanitizers. The same goes for lots of hand washing with antibacterial soap, which btw, might be might be messing with your hormones. The authors found that more kids were getting preventable diseases after long term use. The researchers surmised that ultra-clean environments could lower immunity so much that it weakens the body's defense mechanisms. The moral of the story: Some dirt is good for you. (Who knew there was a sneaky downside to washing your hands?)

Don't use it on cuts. If you get a cut, avoid putting hand sanitizer on it, because... ouch! Also, avoid over-the-counter antibiotic creams, as they are some of the most common causes of allergic reactions in the skin. Compromised skin responds best to gentle cleansers and petroleum jelly (like Vaseline) to promote wound healing. (You can also use petroleum jelly on dry, itchy skin.)

Overuse can compromise the skin barrier. The alcohol base that makes these products effective can be irritating to the skin. Alcohol strips the barrier of essential proteins and lipids, resulting in irritation and dryness. Try to moisturize to avoid this consequence. (See the best moisturizers for dry skin.)

They don't clean off food residue. You may think that the sanitizer you carry everywhere is the answer to anything visible or invisible that can soil your hands, but it's not the case. Things like fats and sugar deposits don't vanish from your hands because you added sanitizer. You need suds and water to wash them away.

All of that being said, hand sanitizer remains one of my best friends. I connect with it multiple times a day, and I never go anywhere without it. It has its faults, but don't we all?

Comments (1)

May 2, 2017
As I am highly allergic to alcohol, I cannot use most hand sanitizers. The only ones that I can use are citrus rather than alcohol based. Those are very hard to find and tend to be very expensive as well. But when I do use them, I'm not trying to get rid of germs. I'm trying to wipe away dirt and dust when soap and water aren't available. Also I've read several articles lately that have said anti-bacterial soaps are a waste of money and bad for your overall health.