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You might be dirtier than you think

With millions of bacteria and germs within arm’s reach, are your cleanliness habits enough?

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A sign directs visitors to a nearby hand washing station in front of empty vendor booths at the Pike Place Market in Seattle.

A sign directs visitors to a nearby hand washing station in front of empty vendor booths at the Pike Place Market Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Seattle.

Elaine Thompson, Associated Press

Since childhood, we’ve been hit with advice on hygiene, like wash your hands thoroughly, don’t eat food that’s touched the ground and wash your body not just your hair. But are we actually doing enough to steer clear of germs?

Scientific research can offer a look at the effectiveness of common hygiene habits, as well as insights about the best ways to get and stay clean.

Washing your hands

Messaging about the importance of washing your hands everyday did not become popular until the 1880s, according to National Geographic. That’s when Ignaz Semmelweis, an early pioneer of antiseptic procedures, implemented the first mandatory handwashing practice for his doctors and students.

Seeing a rise in deaths in the maternity ward, Semmelweis hypothesized that working with cadavers without cleaning oneself transferred harmful particles to other mothers. Though he was originally ridiculed for his discovery, the American health care system later incorporated hand washing into its hygiene guidelines, National Geographic reported.

Best way to wash hands

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends these five steps for effective hand washing:

  1. Wet your hands with clean water, warm or cold.
  2. Apply soap and lather hands. Rub the backs, between fingers and under nails.
  3. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Singing “Happy Birthday” twice takes that long.
  4. Rinse hands under clean, running water.
  5. Dry hands using a clean towel or air dryer.
  6. If soap and water are not available, use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.

When should I wash my hands?

Washing your hands often can keep yourself and those you love healthy. But there are certain times when you need to be especially careful because germs are more likely to be spread, per the CDC.

  • Before, during and after making food.
  • Before and after eating food.
  • Before and after caring for someone who is sick.
  • Before and after treating a wound, including a cut.
  • After using the toilet.
  • After changing diapers or cleaning up someone who has used the toilet.
  • After blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing.
  • After touching an animal, their food or their waste.
  • After touching garbage.

How many germs are on your hands?

According to the UofL Health, there are typically between 10,000 and 10 million bacteria on each hand at any given time. The bacteria survives on your hand for about three hours.

If you do not dry your wet hands, they spread 1,000 times more germs than dry hands, the article said.

Washing your face

In a 2017 survey of 1,000 adults, researchers found that 54% of people often skip washing their face before bedtime, per PR Newswire.

What’s on our face?

Jordan Carqueville, a certified dermatologist and founder of the Derm Institute of Chicago, told Today in 2022 that if you’re not washing your face frequently enough, there will be a buildup of skin cells and clogged pores, resulting in acne.

Washing your face also helps ward off illness. According to the CDC, touching your face can allow germs to get into your eyes, mouth and nose, potentially leading to illnesses such as the common cold, flu, COVID-19 and pink eye.

Washing your face is key to preventing the spread of disease, while also getting healthier skin.

How often should you wash your face?

Facial hygiene, including caring for the teeth, mouth, eyes and ears, should be practiced daily. For best protection, wash your hands regularly and touch your face rarely, per the CDC.

But you have to be careful not to wash too often. “When you wash your face, removing that oil barrier can actually be detrimental,” Carqueville said to Today.

Taking a shower

Many doctors say showering at least two to three times a week is enough to maintain good health. When you don’t shower enough, odor and bacteria build up. On the other hand, if you shower too much, you lose the good bacteria, per WebMD.

How often should I shower?

There is no ideal frequency on how often one should shower, according to health experts. Unless you are grimy, sweaty or sticky you do not need to shower every day.

If desired, short three to four minute showers each day focused on the armpits and groin will be OK, according to Harvard Medical School.

Does the recommendation to focus on the armpits and groin mean they’re dirty?

The armpit, due to it being moist, warm and dark, has a lot of bacteria. The bacteria typically causes a body odor, per NPR.

Using deodorant can mask the smell, but if you don’t wash it off later, it can contribute to more smell and bacteria. Doctors recommend using good good antibacterial soap and lathering it on the armpits for 30 seconds, according to Well and Good.

Regarding the groin, folded skin and hair can harbor millions of bacteria and lead to infection and odor. Cleaning with warm water and soap, or at least changing undergarments daily, can help reduce the risk of developing disease, per Times of India.

Clothes

Clothes are sometimes dirtier after we wash them than they were before, according to ABC News.

But Philip Tierno, a professor of microbiology and pathology at the New York University School of Medicine, said to ABC News that using bleach or very hot water is enough to kill bacteria.

“Most of the hot water people use is not hot enough. You need water that’s between 140 and 150 degrees to kill germs,” he said.

How often should you wash clothes?

Per Whirlpool, some clothes allow for multiple wearings before washing unless they get stained or soiled.

Whirlpool recommends these washing guidelines:

  • Shirts and blouses: after 1-2 wearings.
  • Dress pants or slacks: after 2-3 wearings.
  • Jeans: after 4-5 wearings.
  • Sweaters: up to 6 wearings, if worn with an undershirt; 1-2 wearings if worn without.
  • Suits, blazers or casual jackets: after 5-6 wearings.
  • Workout clothes: after 1 wearing.
  • Sleepwear: after 2-3 wearings.

Is there a difference between indoor and outdoor clothes?

According to The Washington Post, some individuals believe that the clothes you wear when you’re out and about should be exchanged for other, clean clothes when you return home.

But Graham Snyder, the medical director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh, told The Washington Post that germs on your clothes are not dangerous.

“If the idea is, I want to avoid any organisms at all, that’s not going to happen,” Snyder said.

What else do you touch that is pretty dirty?

Here is a list of everyday items we touch that might inspire more intense hygiene practices.

  • Shopping carts — 72% of carts tested positive for fecal bacteria and 50% tested positive for E. coli in a study, per UofL Health.
  • Cellphones — Phones could be up to 10 times dirtier than a toilet seat because we take them into bathrooms, according to Web MD.
  • Kitchen sponges — Sponges can trap food particles and bacteria such as E. coli, per USA Today.
  • Bath towels — Since they stay moist, towels often have a large number of bacteria on them if left in the bathroom, according to Family Handyman.

Is extra exposure to germs good for you?

A theory called the hygiene hypothesis suggests that the environment children grow up in today is too clean and doesn’t challenge their immune systems enough. It predicts that, as children get older, they’ll get more sick than someone who was regularly exposed to more germs as a child, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

The hypothesis, which dates back to the 1980s, is not necessarily reliable. Being exposed to viruses at a young age doesn’t guaranteed that you’ll be protected against diseases. Most viral infections contribute to other diseases or worsen them. Getting a vaccine is the safest option for exposure, per Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

But on a similar note, it’s not good to constantly sanitize your house, office or car. You don’t want to kill off the good types of bacteria, which are essential for a healthy microbiome, according to Johns Hopkins.

Should I be afraid?

The bottom line is no, you should not be afraid of germs, according to health experts.

Though they can be everywhere, and are often on your body, washing your hands every day is the best thing you can do to stay safe, per the CDC.