Between studies telling us that soaps and hand sanitizers are bad for us and research that says there’s fecal matter on our grocery carts, personal hygiene has become way too confusing. How you wash your hands, body, and home isn’t just a personal choice anymore, it also has far-reaching environmental and health effects, and there’s no clear “right way” to go about it. So we talked to Dr. Larry Weiss, physician and expert at CleanWell, and asked him: How are we supposed to keep clean?
Weiss, the Co-founder and Chief Scientist at CleanWell, says that hygiene isn’t really about technology and products; it’s about behavior. “Hygiene is personal, health is public,” he explains. “To make an impact, we have to start with human behavior.” Women are more likely to wash their hands than men, Weiss says, but only 63% of us wash our hands after using the bathroom; 50% use soap, and only 2% wash our hands for longer than 10 seconds. Instead of trying to encourage better personal hygiene habits, Weiss says that companies threw the type of ultra-strong products used in hospitals into consumer products, resulting in the glut of dangerous, triclosan-filled soaps that are damaging to the environment and public health.
So what’s a balanced, healthy approach to hygiene? “It’s not about a war on germs, and likewise, I don’t know anyone who’s ‘too clean,’” Weiss says. He reminds us that, at any given time, there are ten times as many bacterial cells as human cells on our bodies, and without them, we wouldn’t survive. Scaring people into thinking that they’re at war with germs is just a way to get them to buy and use toxic products that don’t feel good, Weiss says. “If we’re all stewards of bacterial colonies that keep us healthy, then we’re not trying to kill all germs, and we shouldn’t be afraid of them. We’re just trying to keep them healthy, and keep them out of the environment.” Instead of living at war with germs, we should be living in balance with them. “The immune system isn’t a defense department,” he says. “It’s a center of diplomacy.”
But for those who believe that they never need to shower, wash their hands, or clean the kitchen counter, Weiss reminds us that there are some common, obvious places where we’re likely to pick up germs that throw off our balance and make us sick. Gyms, hand rails, and elevator buttons are all places where products like hand sanitizers or sanitizing wipes can come in handy: “Washing your hands with soap and water should be enough to keep you healthy, but since we don’t design public spaces for hygiene and we can’t control everyone else’s behavior, public places are higher risk.”
And here’s where the plug for CleanWell comes in. Rather than using heavy-duty chemicals like triclosan and alcohol to disinfect, CleanWell’s approach was to make an effective, natural product that encourages positive behavior: “To build a repetitive, self-reinforcing behavior with no apparent benefit like washing your hands, you need to create a positive emotional state that goes with it – anyone who’s ever trained a dog knows this,” Weiss says. People don’t like to use most hand sanitizers because they don’t feel good (and they’re not even safe for children, in many cases), but women like to put on perfume, because it smells good, and they feel good when they put it on. So CleanWell developed products that use natural smells to create a positive emotional experience. And for what it’s worth, Blisstree’s staff are all fans: Without triclosan or nasty chemicals that scare us off of most sanitizers and soaps, Cleanwell’s products do actually feel and smell great. (And no, we weren’t paid to write this.)
But even if you’re a loyal fan of other (hopefully chemical-free brands) of soap and hand-sanitizer, Weiss has advice for keeping yourself clean: “No one actually uses that old trick of singing “Happy Birthday” while washing their hands, because people feel silly and foolish doing it; instead, take five slow, deep breaths – you’ll wash your hands long enough and lower your blood pressure and heart rate while doing it.”