Years ago, I listened to an interview with a scientist who had cultured the bacteria on many of the surfaces in an average home. He swabbed counter tops, sinks, floors, toilets, showers and even the towels hanging on the towel rack. What he found was that all the surfaces were covered with bacteria. For some reason, this discovery seemed to surprise him. One of his great revelations was that if you reused your bath towel, the numbers of bacteria on the towel increased each time you used it.
Oh, no! Reusing one’s own towel is a rule in our house because I really don’t want to do laundry every day. Constant washing wears the towels out more quickly. When I heard his dire accounting of millions of germs everywhere I wondered, “So what?” The scientist didn’t mention if his research included any data on the numbers of people who had developed a skin infection after having used their own towel for the second or third time. My own research showed no increase in the incidence of skin rashes in family members as a result of their reusing their bath towels in spite of the growing number of bacteria found there.
Recent studies have found that killing all the bacteria on our skin and on the surfaces of our household may not make us healthier. The total, all out, weapons of mass destruction approach to managing microbiology may make us sicker. There is a theory that we have gone so far in removing dirt and bacteria from our lives that we are impairing the development of our immune systems. Many studies have shown that children who grow up with animals and who are exposed to bacteria in their environment are healthier and have fewer allergies and are less likely to develop asthma. Yes! I knew there was a scientific justification for my housekeeping habits! Of course, one can take any theory too far. No scientist is suggesting that children be allowed to put absolutely everything into their mouths or that cleanliness in the kitchen is not necessary. We don’t need to obsess about the number of bacteria growing on our twice-used bath towels or to wash everything with bleach and triclosan based soaps. According to many researchers, using ordinary soap does just as good a job as antibacterial soaps in preventing disease without the risk of the antibacterial chemical’s possible endocrine disruption and complete destruction of all bacteria, good and bad.
Just last week, scientists at the National Institutes of Health published the results of research which cataloged the variety of bacteria, viruses and fungi on our skin. Interestingly, the number of kinds of fungi on our skin varies depending on location. Our head, neck and back have a few kinds of fungi, but our feet have hundred of varieties. Maybe this is because our feet are kept in shoes and socks which keep them moist and dark. Our heads and hands are washed more frequently and tend to be drier and in the light. We’ve all probably experienced the burning, itching between our toes when the athlete’s foot fungus suddenly gets out of control. Why a fungus usually present on our skin suddenly attacks its host was not part of this NIH study.
Not all bacteria and fungi in and on our bodies are bad. Some keep the nasty kinds from taking over. Others are necessary for digestion of our food and for maintaining the health of our skin. The NIH researchers view the many kinds of bacteria, viruses and fungi on our skin as an ecosystem. They hope that studying the interactions of these tiny passengers on our bodies may help us to understand how to prevent things like skin cancer and those pesky and hard to treat toenail fungus infections.
One thing is apparent from this and other research. Eliminating all the microbes from our bodies does more harm than good. When we treat bacterial infections with broad spectrum antibiotics, not only are the disease causing germs destroyed, but so are the good bacteria in our guts and on our skin. While sometimes absolutely necessary, such aggressive treatments can result in digestive problems and secondary fungal skin infections. It is obvious that we need these tiny relatives of mold on our skin and a healthy mix of bacteria in our intestines.
Yes, wash your hands before you eat or cook and after visiting the bathroom. Wash cuts and scrapes. If you’re sick keep your bugs to yourself. Don’t kiss your dog. Limit the use of things that kill everything. Don’t worry about the growth of bacteria on your bath towel or the many kinds of fungi between your toes.
The teeming, squirming, almost invisible life in the soil and it’s health is important for growing food. The things which share our own skin are just as intricate, interconnected and important to our own health.
Life is an amazing, complex and intricate web, from things only seen with a microscope to the universe visible only through a telescope.
Copyright © 2013 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains