You may have heard the criticism of the ubiquity of antibacterial products, with scientists saying that it helps antibiotic-resistant bacteria grow and flourish. But there’s new research that indicates that that criticism may not be going far enough when it comes to children: even making your kids wash their hands before meals may be putting caution ahead of proper immune system development.
A 2009 New York Times article has a fascinating look at some of the recent research, which attempts to explain why immune system disorders as severe as multiple sclerosis and as common as allergies have risen so drastically in prevalence in developed countries. The evidence seems to indicate that as our lives get cleaner and cleaner, our immune systems have been exposed to much less during our childhood, and therefore our immune systems not only don’t have much practice fighting off serious germs, but they also don’t learn what’s safe to ignore. The theory is that, therefore, when we get older, they’re that much more likely to go haywire and attack things that they shouldn’t.
Some of the research referenced in the article even indicates that intestinal worms are beneficial, based on the evidence that children who grow up on farms, with lots of animals, are less likely to have auto-immune disorders as they get older. Since moving to a farm isn’t an option for everyone, the researchers recommend getting several pets for your kids. Of course, if you yourself are allergic to pets, you may not have that option, either, but there’s only so much you can do on that front until they come up with a known-safe way to give your kids intestinal worms.
What you can do, though, is not let your kids use antibacterial products unless regular soap and water aren’t available or unless there’s some other reason to use them. I know it’ll be hard to change, for me as well, since I’m a little bit obsessive-compulsive about clean hands. But, as hard things to do for your kids go, it’s one of the easier ones. Right?
[This post originally ran in 2009.]