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Del the Funky Homosapien rapped it best: “It’s important to practice good hygiene/At least if you wanna run with my team.”
Well, we do want to run with Del’s team, and besides, smelling nice is always a plus. But think of hygiene more as a happy medium than an all-out blitz. It is possible to overdo it.
In fact, sometimes, in the name of health, we innocently do more harm to our bodies than good. From drying your hands to washing your dishes and cleaning your ears, here are 10 hygiene practices you’re better off skipping. Don’t worry; you’ll still be able to run with Del.
1. Relying on Too Much Hot Air
Ah, the old and bitter controversy: hand towels versus air dryers. Well, debate no further. An authority no less illustrious than the Mayo Clinic points to research that shows paper towels are better than electric hand dryers, at least in terms of scraping away bacteria.
By nature, not only do electric hand dryers fail to “wipe off” the bacteria remaining on your hands, but they may also spread it to the entire room, essentially aerosolizing the bugs. Not to mention, hand dryers are louder and often less effective, and they can leave your skin chapped and dry. Plus, if you’re concerned about the environment, know that standard warm air dryers use a lot of power and can be resource-intensive to install.
Summary: Hand towels are often more effective at fighting germs. Use fewer towels to reduce your ecological footprint.
2. Using This Old Excuse to Get Out of Your Turn Doing Dishes
Dishes are everyone’s least favorite chore—they’re gross, and they take forever. So it’s no surprise that people often “let them soak” to avoid the dirty work. It turns out, though, that there’s some very scary things that make a home inside that dirty sink.
According to research compiled by the University of Arizona, somewhere between 50 and 80 percent of bugs that lead to food-borne illnesses are bred right at home.
And where exactly in the home do you think these pathogens are breeding? The second-worst offender in microbiologist Charles Gerba’s research, after the kitchen sponge, is the kitchen sink. It has more bacteria than your toilet, according to Gerba. (“That’s why your dog likes to drink out of the toilet,” he jokes.)
Summary: Wash dishes as soon as possible with hot water and soap.
3. Waging All-Out War on Microbes
Good old-fashioned hand-washing is still the best way to fight the spread of germs, but should you really choose antibacterial soaps designed to nuke all microorganisms, no matter what? Triclosan, a broad-spectrum antibacterial agent used in soap, mouthwash, and even deodorant, was examined in a study in Clinical Infectious Diseases.
According to study authors, this sanitizing agent is “no more effective than plain soap at preventing infectious illness symptoms and reducing bacterial levels on the hands,” and its potential to kill even healthy bugs may be associated with the “emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”
The FDA seems to have agreed with the study’s conclusions, as the administration recently restricted triclosan’s use in certain products.
Summary: When in doubt, use plain soap every time to win the fight against germs.
4. Skipping the Dirt
According to researchers at Cornell University, a little dirt in your diet is a good thing. Maybe you shouldn’t wash your garden vegetables so scrupulously.
They say that geophagy, or the consumption of soil, has existed in humans for millennia—and it may actually help protect the stomach against pathogens, toxins, and parasites.
The data shows that geophagy shows up most commonly in women in the early stages of pregnancy and in pre-adolescent children. Both categories of people are especially sensitive to parasites and pathogens, according to the study’s authors. A little dirt goes a long way.
Summary: Don’t fear a bit of dirt on your veggies—that mud pie you ate as a child might have been medicinal.
5. Over-Reliance on the Fridge
It goes without saying that some foods (such as meat) need to be refrigerated. But according to a study published in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology, purposefully allowing other foods like fruits and vegetables to be exposed to warm air (thereby slightly fermenting them) can actually cultivate your own homemade and delicious probiotics!
Long before the invention of refrigeration (and the concept of hygiene), milk, bread starter, and vegetables were often fermented before eating. The researchers found that eating slightly fermented foods actually boosts your immune system and increases the nutrient content of the food. Who doesn’t love sourdough?
6. Refusing to Share
Odds are, if you and a pair of friends want to share an oversized dessert at your favorite restaurant, you’ll ask for three spoons with the dish. You might assume using separate spoons is healthier than sharing. Not necessarily, say researchers.
Encouraging the spread of healthy bacteria in our guts is something we need to do more of, the researchers say. Sharing saliva among healthy friends and family members—and thus introducing their microbes into your own microbiome—may actually help your immune system. Not only does sharing cut down on calories, then, but it also builds up the body’s supply of good bugs.
It’s important to note, though, that you really don’t want to share food or drinks with people who are actively sick. That’s especially true of drinks, Sunny Jung of Virginia Tech explained to Popular Science. No matter how careful you may be, there’s always some level of backwash left in the cup after a sip. Yuck.
Summary: Share food and drinks with healthy friends and family to boost your immunity.
7. Relaxing in the Shower
There’s nothing like a long hot shower, especially first thing in the morning. It wakes you up and leaves you feeling fresh and ready to start the day. But is it good for your skin?
According to Alan J. Parks, MD, founder of DermWarehouse, the answer is, sadly, not so much. Hot showers strip protective oils from your skin, so you should always keep them short as you can stand, Parks suggests.
The soap you use is important, too. “Many soaps will strip your skin of natural oils and cause your skin to dry out,” Parks says. Try to use gentle soaps, like those made for sensitive skin, and make sure to rinse every last bit of lather from your body before getting out of the shower.
Here’s another shocker: Hot showers are actually most beneficial at night, as part of your bedtime routine. The cooling process that begins after stepping out of a hot shower can create an easier transition to sleep—potentially leading to a more restful night. A temperature drop triggers your body to rest because it slows down the body’s metabolic activities, like digestion, breathing, and heart rate.
Summary: Keep hot showers as short as possible, and take them at night to help you sleep.
8. Abusing the Q-Tip
It’s too bad earwax is brown and sticky. Many people falsely assumed that it’s dirty and needs to be cleaned. Earwax (scientifically named cerumen) is a combination of sebum (oils), secretions from glands in the outer ear canal, and skin cells. It’s all good stuff, people.
Like many processes in the body, earwax production is a self-cleaning, protective mechanism that you shouldn’t interfere with in most cases. Even worse, sticking objects in your ear can damage your eardrum and lead to hearing loss.
Occasionally, earwax gets impacted and messes with your hearing. Even in this case, though, you shouldn’t try to clear the blockage yourself. Instead, visit a doctor to remove it.
Experts suggest that if you absolutely must try something at home, just put a drop of mineral oil in your ear every day for a few days. That can loosen built-up earwax. Once the wax reaches peak-gooeyness, squirt clean water gently into the ear canal and wipe with a fresh towel; that should do the trick.
Summary: Don’t stick things in your ear. Ever. Unless earwax is impeding your hearing, leave it there.
9. Developing a Preoccupation With Exfoliation
You need to exfoliate to remove a layer of unpleasant skin cells, exposing the beauty beneath, right? Maybe so, but it’s a mistake to treat your skin like a plank that needs sanding. There’s no good reason for most of us to exfoliate every day.
Just like with hot showers, this is an issue of preserving the oils that protect the skin. Even worse, you can actually damage the skin if you don’t give those shiny new layers time to grow in.
So how often should you exfoliate? Dermatologists like to point out that everyone is different, and that your skin will let you know if you’re over-exfoliating. Unfortunately, it can only do that by getting all red and painful, so it might be best to err on the side of caution.
The consensus among dermatologists, when pressed, seems to be that you shouldn’t exfoliate more than two or three times a week.
Summary: Do exfoliate. Do not do it every day. And don’t try to get a straight answer out of a dermatologist.
10. Fearing Greasy Hair
Everyone’s hair is a little different—there’s a wide range of types, from the brittle and dry to the over-oily. But all of us could probably stand to go easier on the shampoo.
The oil that the hair naturally produces, called sebum, is actually good for your hair and your skin, as it forms a protective layer and locks moisture in.
Unfortunately, shampoos don’t discriminate between healthy oils and gunk like dirt, sweat, and product residue. Shampoo strips away the good and the bad, potentially leaving your hair drier and more vulnerable to damage.
Now, it’s true that some people need to wash their hair daily. People with extremely fine or oily hair, or who live in very humid climates, or who sweat profusely, might consider shampooing daily with a mild moisturizing shampoo. But that’s not most of us.
The point of all this is not that you should stop taking care of yourself entirely, of course. Fail to heed Del the rapper’s warnings and you know the result: “You’ll be funky.”