Itʼs no secret that Donald Trump is a fan of Fox News, the American news channel whose hosts the President regularly sits down to do interviews with. However, one such host, Pete Hegseth, probably wonʼt be getting a handshake from the president any time soon.

“I donʼt really wash my hands ever,” Hegseth announced on air this week. “Germs are not a real thing. I canʼt see them, therefore theyʼre not real.”

Twitter erupted, while the president probably made a mental note to avoid shaking hands with Hegseth, one of his most vocal supporters, ever again. A self-confessed “germaphobe”, Trump has already admitted avoiding handshakes and is regularly caught on camera being handed small bottles of hand sanitiser by White House staff.
Robbie Williams was caught on camera doing the same (and looking quite squeamish) after performing Auld Lang Syne with audience members during a New Yearʼs Eve gig at Westminsterʼs Central Hall.

But Trump and Williams are far from alone. Sales of hand sanitisers have skyrocketed in the last ten years, along with antibacterial hand soaps and wipes, and recent data from Mintel found a third of us buy a bottle of hand sanitiser every month.

No longer the preserve of hospitals (the first hand sanitiser was invented by an American nurse in 1966 after discovering alcohol, when delivered through a gel, removed germs without soap and water), theyʼre now found in handbags, homes and on desks across the UK.

So, when did we become a nation of germ-fighters? And is it doing us any good?

“Of course you should wash your hands regularly,” says Tim Spector, a professor of genetic epidemiology at Kingʼs College London and author of The Diet Myth. “However, we seem to have developed an obsession with hygiene that, along with antibiotics, is decreasing our gut diversity and having an impact on our microbes and gut health.

“Children who grow up on farms have about a third less allergy risk. People who have pets, and those who come from large, poor families also have fewer allergies. The theory goes, if youʼre exposed to microbes from an early age, and have a healthy exposure to them in general, your immune system is exercised and trained to deal with harmful germs. Having friendly microbes on your skin and in your gut improves how your immune system responds to real threats.”

Speaking of threats, Professor Spector says headlines about SARS, Swine Flu and ebola have driven fears weʼre under siege from infection, when we should be more worried about the connection between overzealous clearning and poor gut health, which is linked to obesity and allergies.

“Of course, thereʼs a middle ground. If youʼre a chef, or work in a hospital, or youʼre on a cruise where thereʼs an outbreak of vomiting and diarrhoea, then it pays to be cautious. But the average person just needs to wash their hands with soap and hot water when required.”

“I find it scarcely believable that Pete Hegseth doesnʼt wash his hands,” says Professor John Oxford, a virologist at the Queen Mary School of Medicine. “Iʼve spent my life looking down microscopes and I can assure you that germs are very real.

“The first doctor who championed hand washing was a Hungarian called Ignaz Semmelweis, who in 1846 questioned why so many mothers on the maternity ward where he worked were dying. He realised doctors were performing autopsies and then delivering babies straight after. He ordered staff to wash their hands and death rates dropped. So hand washing is an important tool in public health.”

Though soap and hot water will do, thereʼs now a commercial edge to cleanliness too: “One hundred years ago, there werenʼt hundreds of cleaning products, bleaches, anti-bac sprays and hand sanitisers in our homes and lining supermarket shelves,” says Professor Spector. “Our kitchens didnʼt look like gleaming intensive care units. Our natural, friendly, healthy microbes are being washed, scrubbed and sanitised away so our immune systems have nothing to fight against.”

Indeed, so-called ‘clean-fluencersʼ (clean influencers) such as Mrs Hinch (1.8m followers and counting) are all over Instagram telling us how to keep our homes spotlessly clean, which, combined with the Marie Kondo effect means weʼre vulnerable to the idea we need to be as clean as possible – and never more so than when it comes to protecting our childrenʼs health. The child hand sanitiser market (unheard of 20 years ago) is rising, you can now buy antibacterial nappy sacks, and most mumsʼ nappy bags contain mini pots of hand sanitisers.

“Thereʼs been a huge rise in all types of allergies among children in the last 40 years,” says Professor Spector. “Somethingʼs going on. So while hand washing after nappy changing and going to the toilet should be encouraged, children should be allowed to play in the dirt, stroke pets and climb trees without worrying too much.
Otherwise, the danger is that we’re just ” replacing one problem – the risk of infection – for an altogether different one.”

By Maria Lally
February 12th 2019