How can we be clean when we still have micro-bugs on us

Iris Liu
23 January 2012

Squeaky clean?

We've all had our parents tell us to go wash up for dinner, or by your friends to "go take a shower" after some sports events. But what does it really mean to be "clean?"

If you used lot of soap and warm water and scrubbed really, really well, chances are, you may have just gotten rid of some of the bacteria that live on your skin. However, in one study, researchers discovered that there are about 10 millionbacteria per cm2of skin — that's likely smaller than your thumbnail!With all of those bacteria, I have my doubts that you would be able to wipe out ALL of it. So much for being "squeaky" clean after a shower!

Did You Know?
Did you know that if we were to count the number of bacteria that live on or in you and the number of cells in your body, the bacteria would outnumber you 10 to 1? Let's hope your body never turns democratic!

The bacteria that do live on your skin, however, do have a purpose.Ok, so there are some that we would rather not have living on there,such as those that cause pimples (ew!) or those that make our armpits smell like last week's lunch. However, having bacteria on your skin,(also known as your skin flora), helps keep the bad guys away. How does it work? Think of your skin as prime real estate.If someone is occupying it (i.e. the non-harmful bacteria) then the bad ones (e.g. Corneybacterium diphtheria causes acne) won't have a chance to move in.

Did You Know?
Did you know that sweat is actually odourless? It's true!Rather, it is the bacteria on your skin. When they use the sweat as food, they turn the sweat into a waste product, which is well, waste...and smelly!

Is it possible to be too clean?

Surprisingly, the answer is yes! Studies have shown that early exposure to bacteria (especially when you are a kid) can help teach your immune system to recognize who are the bad guys and the good guys. That is, if you don't have a lot of exposure to bacteria when you are a kid, you are more likely to develop allergies or asthma.This is known as the "Pigpen" effect, named after the Pigpen character in Peanuts.

Money saving tip: Did you know that ordinary soap and water will kill just as effectively as the marketed "antibacterial soap?" The trick is to wash for over 30 seconds.

Also, in another study, scientists discovered that nurses who washed their hands too often actually ended up increasing the number of bacteria that lived on their skin. It turns out that washing your hands too often would result in damaging your own skin.

So the next time your parents ask you to "wash up" remember — you aren't becoming bacteria free, you're giving your 'good bacteria' the upper hand to fight off the bad guys.

Learn more!

The war on bacteria

Hartmann, A. A. "A Comparative Investigation of Methods for Sampling Skin Flora." Arch Derm Res. 274: 381 — 385.

The Microbial Flora of Skin

When is clean to clean?

This article was written and researched by Iris Liu.

Iris Liu

I am a medical student at the UBC, Island Medical Program. Between coordinating for Gene skool, learning about medicine, and playing on my guitar, percussing my food and co-managing the In the News section of CurioCity, I occasionally wonder when I sleep! But all is well when I take the time to just reflect on the day by reading my Bible and writing plays about a fictional character named Cindy.


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