Dirty secrets: how clean are you really?

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Stylist Team
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The ascent of spring means it's cleaning season. But are we hygienic where it matters most?

Words: Michelle Davies

When was the last time you changed your bedsheets? Are you sure? Now answer this: when was the last time you lied about changing your bedsheets? Or about sneaking a worn pair of tights out of the washing basket for that matter. And – be really honest now – how many days in a row has your hair secretly survived on nothing more than a blast of dry shampoo and a hope that nobody notices?

No-one wants to be known as a bit grubby but, in 2016, the cult of clean has reached unprecedented levels. Now, cleanliness not only has entire TV programmes and a £10billion industry dedicated to it in the EU alone, but it has its own social hierarchy too. To publicly admit that our bodies and homes are less than sparkling, at all times of the day, is almost offensive. But while an ‘obsession’ with bleach has become a badge of honour, are we really all that squeaky clean behind closed doors – or are we harbouring a grubby secret? And how do you measure up on the sanitation scale?

Intrigued by the growing preoccupation with being clean, Stylist asked almost 1,000 readers about their hygiene habits, with surprising results. Are you one of the 67% who shower or bath at least once a day? Or do you relate to the massive 63% of readers who admit they would consider eating food after it’s been dropped on the floor? Would you share a knowing look with the 19% of those surveyed who say they only wash their tights once a week or with the 1% of readers who say – and we hope there’s good reason behind it – they only change their knickers once per week? And crucially, would you ever admit that in public?

Thought not. And it’s not surprising – connotations of cleanliness are ingrained in us from childhood. They’re especially relevant for women – the ‘fairer’ sex, who are expected to be fresh and sweet-smelling and pure – while being sweaty for a man is often seen as virile and strong. Women are taught to fear body odour and even that our basic bodily functions are a bit gross, something that is evident through the pertinently named ‘hygiene’ products (clearly tampons and pads are simply functional). Conversely, men are almost encouraged to embrace their not-so-sweet bodily functions, perpetuating the stereotype that being unclean equates to being unforgivably unfeminine.

The result is often guilt over unwashed sheets, shame over a skipped shower – and, as our survey showed – the inclination to present ourselves publicly as paragons of cleanliness… Even if it’s not always quite true.

“Sometimes when I really can’t be bothered I don’t bother washing my plates,” explains an anonymous 29-year-old HR executive. To the world, she showers daily, sometimes twice if she goes to the gym, and her clothes are always freshly laundered – but it seems her domestic life harbours some unclean secrets. “I just wipe them clean with a tissue, instead,” she confesses. “I don’t really see the problem. But I’d be mortified if my friends ever found out. I’d hate them to think I was a slob.”

Changing habits

In fact, shame is often the first emotion we associate with being considered anything other than scrupulously clean. Despite the fact that we’ll happily swear and guzzle pints (habits once considered ‘unsavoury’ for women), we’re still yet to throw off the belief that being ‘dirty’ is especially bad.

So why do we feel so tense about revealing our inner dirty secrets? Clinical psychologist Dr Helen Nightingale believes that, besides marketing ploys encouraging us to buy into the multi-billion pound cleaning industry, the real fuel behind the ‘cult of clean’ is an obsession with perfectionism and societal pressure.

“As a society we’re demanding higher standards all the time and we’re constantly hearing the message that we should be self-improving,” explains Nightingale. “We might say: ‘I’m not going to bother showering today,’ but too many people feel guilty about it.”

Feeling like we always have to be the best version of ourselves, especially among women, also fuels the obsession – and in turn makes us judgmental of people who don’t (at least appear to) match our standards. “People are fearful of judgment, and that’s a form of social anxiety,” adds Nightingale. “The underpinning consideration or cognitive belief is that ‘I’m not good enough’. The words we use [to describe not being clean] are derogatory too, such as slovenly, dirty, filthy and smelly.”

In fact, dirtiness is now associated as much with laziness as it is hygiene. It’s why we all revel in the freedom of festivals and mock-moan about missing our daily shower, while secretly noting that we really don’t smell that much after a quick once over with a wet wipe. Yet people who prioritise an extra 10 minutes in bed over washing their hair are looked down upon, despite it having no real adverse effect.

“There’s a big difference between something that’s clean and looks clean, and something that’s hygienically clean,” explains Professor Sally Bloomfield, honorary professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and chair of the International Scientific Forum on Home Hygiene. “We’ve rather lost sight of that. When it comes to hygiene, it’s the things we do to prevent the spread of harmful organisms that’s important, such as when we’re handling food. It’s about keeping things not just visibly clean but hygienically clean.”

Those we surveyed certainly confused the two. Many of you expressed genuine shame over not smelling clean. “In a moment of real panic, having run out of deodorant and having no perfume to hand, I’m sorry to say that I Febrezed the underarms of my own top,” said one reader, who asked to remain anonymous. Hardly icky on the scale of things, she was nonetheless mortified, stressing, “It was just that one time, and has not been repeated.”

A bit of dirt doesn’t hurt

Confessions of unsavoury behaviour came thick and fast during Stylist’s survey, ranging from eating a housemate’s leftover pizza fished out of the bin, borrowing another person’s toothbrush, using a sock in lieu of toilet paper… One respondent even admitted to eating a chocolate she’d found on a bus seat.

Ironically when it comes to what really matters, our standards are far lower. “I dropped a steak on the floor that I was cooking for my partner,” another reader confessed. “The cat got there first and gave it a lick before I could grab it – I just gave it a wipe and plated it up.”

But the home is the one area where we should be living up to the high standards of hygiene we profess when around friends or colleagues. “When you’re having a shower, you’re not really doing anything in terms of preventing infectious diseases,” says Bloomfield. “What you’re really doing is getting rid of grease, sweat, body odour and the bacteria that causes body odour. It’s about feeling good and not smelling, rather than about hygiene.”

Our bodies, especially our skin, need good microbes to function and fight off illness and washing them away can be counter-productive. So while we can pride ourselves on being one of the cleanest nations – thanks to a ground-breaking 2011 study by the Global Hygiene Council that ranked the UK fifth for personal hygiene among 16 developed nations, including the US, China and Germany – we’re also missing the point.

“Really, you can be as clean or dirty as you like, as long as you are hygienic in the places and at the times that matter,” says Nightingale.

So even though there are some kitchen habits that really do pose a danger, such as failing to sufficiently clean after preparing raw chicken (up to 73% of all supermarket-bought chicken contains the harmful bacteria, campylobacter, which is responsible for around 280,000 cases of food poisoning each year), perhaps we don’t need to take cleaning quite so seriously. “In comparison, only a handful of people per year drop food on the floor, pick it up and eat it, and actually get sick,” says Bloomfield. “There’s no need to be so fastidious,” agrees Nightingale. “Keep a balance. If anyone tells you that you’re doing something excessively, recognise that and pull back a little.”

So whether you’re a true ‘clean freak’, or just profess to be one while side-eying yesterday’s tights in the laundry bin, it’s fair to say we can all relax about our grubbier little ways. And to the reader who confessed they dropped their baguette on Tottenham Court Road – one of the busiest, grimiest streets in London – but ate it anyway? Don’t sweat it.

Benchmark your cleanliness against other Stylist readers

Dr Elizabeth Sheridan, infection control doctor at Poole Hospital, sets us straight on the germ debate…

37% of us wash our towels less than once a week

Does it matter? “Bugs thrive in the wet. So if you let your towels dry out well between uses, they won’t need so much washing. If the towels stay damp and start to smell, that smell is caused by bacteria and moulds growing on them, in which case they do need a hot wash and thorough drying. Drying them outside in the sun is best of all as UV light is a disinfectant. Microbes (such as staphylococci which can cause skin infections) can be spread from person to person by towels. So it’s best not to share towels, even in the family, and keep your own bugs to yourself.”

63% of us would consider eating food which has been dropped on the floor

Does it matter? “Why do people think the floor is any more likely to have harmful bacteria on it than any other surface? I’d worry a lot more about the kitchen worktop after you’ve just cut up raw chicken: three out of four chickens contain the campylobacter bug, which causes food poisoning and sometimes it can even be found on the packaging.

Before you do pick something up and eat it, think of two things: first, is the floor likely to have harmful bugs on it – a hospital ward where there are patients with infections is going to be a lot riskier than your own living room. Second, is the food wet or dry? Bacteria stick to wet surfaces, so a dry piece of food is going to be a lot safer than a wet, sticky one. Finally, we’ve all heard of the ‘five second rule’: Forget it! Either the food will pick up bacteria instantaneously, or not all. Length of time on the floor makes absolutely no difference.”

19% say our tights get washed just once a week

Does it matter? “I’m surprised about the tights. No major risk of infection here, though if you suffer from urinary or yeast infections it might pay to wash your tights more than once a week, or ideally ditch them completely and let the fresh air circulate. And it’s perfectly hygienic to wear your bra a few times before it goes in the wash.”

58% of us change our toothbrush less than once a month

Does it matter? “No. There is no need to change it before it has worn out. Just make sure you rinse it and let it dry out after use so bugs don’t get a chance to multiply. You can even give it a thorough clean in the dishwasher once in a while to really get rid of all the germs. I don’t recommend sharing toothbrushes with anyone else though.”

25% of us admit we throw out old make-up less than once a year

Does it matter? “You are definitely risking a cluttered bathroom! That said, anything you use on or around the eyes could be a possible source of infection, so eye make-up should be replaced every three to four months.”

28% of us clean our computer keyboards less than once a year

Does it matter? “A computer keyboard is pretty much impossible to clean properly given the likely effects of water on the electronics. Then again, the computer keys are constantly being rubbed by your fingers, so any bacteria on there are unlikely to stay for long. As long as your hands are reasonably clean before you start typing, nothing to worry about. Interesting to tip it up and see what falls out though…”

49% of us don’t use a tissue when we sneeze

Does it matter? “This one is a no-no. Colds and flu are spread by droplets that are fired into the air when someone coughs or sneezes. Sneezing into a tissue then binning it straight away is a great way to protect other people from your germs. The worst thing you can do is to sneeze into your hand – unless you wash it straight afterwards – because then your hand will be covered with viruses, which you will deposit on the next thing you touch.”

23% of us don’t shower every day

Does it matter? “Human skin has evolved to protect the body from dangerous microbes and even has its own population of resident ‘friendly’ microbes to help fight off the invaders. Going a few days without a wash means you might not smell quite as fresh as usual, but it isn’t going to do anybody any harm. If anything, too frequent washing with harsh detergents can harm the skin and disrupt the naturally occurring microbes, so making infections more likely. The main reason for needing a daily wash is to keep you smelling sweet.”

Only 21% of us wash our hair every day

Does it matter? “Again, daily hair-washing is not necessary from the infection point of view. Hair will harbour germs, but generally not harmful ones. Don’t wash your hair every day? You’re safe.”