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Too Clean For Our Own Good?

27 June 2002

An obsession with cleanliness in the home could be leaving our children open to illnesses such as eczema and asthma.

An obsession with cleanliness in the home could be leaving our children open to illnesses such as eczema and asthma.

Dr Andrea Sherriff and a team of scientists from part of the Institute of Child Health at Bristol University have discovered a link between the frequency that children have their hands and faces washed or are bathed or showered, and their chances of developing eczema and wheezing.

As part of the ongoing Children of the 90s study, which has monitored the health and development of more than 14,000 children in the south west, parents were asked when their children were 15 months old how often their child had his or her face and hands washed and how often they were bathed or showered. Over 9,000 parents answered.

Only 15% of children always had their hands cleaned before meals, 36% usually did so, 29% sometimes did, 15% occasionally did so and five per cent never did.

Five per cent of the children were bathed or showered at least twice a day and a further 55% did so once a day, 36% did so several times a week and four per cent were bathed or showered only once a week or less.

Forty three children were having their faces and hands washed more than five times a day, were always having their hands cleaned before a meal and were bathed or showered more than twice a day.

The researchers found that ultra-clean children were more likely to suffer from eczema and/or wheezing than children with less hygienic habits. The more hygienic the child, the more likely he or she was to be affected.

The results did not change when other important factors were taken into account, including family history of asthma and eczema, parental smoking, contact with furry pets, older brothers and sisters and the educational level of the study mother.

Dr Sherriff says, “There could be a number of explanations for this finding. One possibility is that what we have found supports the hygiene hypothesis. This is a theory that suggests that coming into contact with the simple grime and dirt of the environment may actually be good for you. When children are exposed to harmless bacteria it may stimulate their immune systems. There is concern that lack of such contact, perhaps due to the fact that children spend more time indoors and parents use more anti-bacterial products around the home, may lead to allergies and conditions such as eczema and asthma.”

Further work is planned to see whether these children are still affected later in childhood when they start school.

Academic paper reference

A. Sherriff, J. Golding, the ALSPAC Study Team "Hygiene levels in a contemporary population cohort are associated with wheezing and atopic eczema in preschool infants" Archives of Disease in Childhood. doi: 10.1136/adc.87.1.26


ALSPAC The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (also known as Children of the 90s) is a unique ongoing research project based in the University of Bristol. It enrolled 14,000 mothers during pregnancy in 1991-2 and has followed most of the children and parents in minute detail ever since.


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