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Five hygiene myths that drive doctors crazy

As a physician working with the National Health Service NHS, it’s fantastic to see patients taking proactive care of their health and hygiene to prevent illnesses and the spread of germs to others. All too often though, patients come to the clinic showing symptoms caused by overzealous cleaning methods. To save a trip to the doctor’s office, I’ve sterilized five myths about hygiene and cleaning rituals.

1. Only antibacterial soap can fight germs

Many people love the word ‘antibacterial’: ‘Anti’ against, ‘bacterial’ bad stuff. Everyday, we touch surfaces covered in germs like subway handles, door knobs, toilet seats, but we do so without fear as long as we know antibacterial soap is around. But in 2016, the FDA recently banned certain germ-fighting soaps citing a lack of evidence that it’s safe for long-term daily use.

There is also insufficient evidence that it is more effective than plain soap and water. There is evidence, however, that it may strengthen bacterial resistance, so the threat of superbugs is real. If you refer back to our Ada skin blog, you’ll find strong cleaning detergents can also cause dry, itchy rashes.

Try this instead: Use good ol’ soap and water regularly or sparingly use hand sanitizers that contain at least 60 percent alcohol. And, don’t forget to moisturize!

2. Overloading on vitamins will stop a cold

The myth goes, "Catch a cold before it catches you." When we feel a tickle in our throat, it’s common to run to the drug store and try to fend off the virus with as much high dose vitamin C, multivitamins and vitamin D supplements as possible. Unfortunately, the evidence is not strong enough to prove that this will stop a virus dead in its tracks. While vitamins taken in the recommended dose may not be harmful, consuming too much could be.

Try this instead: If you’re getting a sore throat, gargle salt water, drink plenty of fluids and rest. Let the virus run its course. Here's how you can try and prevent a cold: wash your hands regularly (especially after taking public transit) and maintain a varied, balanced diet to get the nutrients you need.

3. Douching will clean your vagina

Why stores still sell douches baffles me, but it probably has something to do with taboos surrounding female hygiene. The vagina is full of good bacteria that work to protect women against infections and other diseases. ‘Cleaning’ the inside with off-the-shelf antiseptics or with water and vinegar doesn’t actually make it cleaner.

In fact, it removes the natural vaginal organisms that protect women against harmful ones. If you remove them, you create space for other bad germs to grow instead and can increase the chance of pelvic inflammatory disease or yeast infections. You can read more about the adverse effects of douching here.

Try this instead: Wash around your genitals with pH neutral, un-perfumed soap and rinse thoroughly with running water.

4. Cotton swabs can scoop out dirty ear wax

Patients have described the oddly satisfying sensation when twirling a Q-Tip in their ear, but these innocent little cotton wool balls could be doing more harm than good. Ears are self-cleaning organs with wax acting as your friend; it protects the ear canal from dirt, dust, shampoo, and other debris.

Pushing a stick into your ears may stop the natural cleansing mechanism and worsen the blockage. At worst, the cotton tip could damage your eardrum or push the wax further into your ear. This impacted wax can have some side effects including pain, general irritation, and sometimes an ear infection.

Try this instead: over the counter olive oil drops. If you feel like wax is really stuck in your ear, put a few drops in with your head turned sideways. It will flow in and around the blocked wax and soften it. It should come out within two weeks. If it doesn’t, consult your doctor. Remember what an ear specialist once said to me, don’t put anything in your ear smaller than an elbow.

5. Ocean water is good for cuts

There’s been some confusion between the benefits of salt water as a disinfectant, and ocean water as ‘good’ for open wounds. Sterile saline solutions (a mix of an iodine-free table or sea salt with warm water) have been used to clean and promote healing. As mentioned above, gargling salt water can also help with a sore throat.

Swimming in salty ocean water after cutting yourself can be dangerous. Ocean water may have a similar compound, but it’s certainly not sterile. Many types of bacteria can thrive in saltwater and could go straight to your wound causing infections.

Try this instead: If you get a minor cut, wash the wound with clean water. Stop the bleeding and clean the wound with sterile saline if it’s easily available. Cover with a clean dressing and keep the wound dry. Protect the injury and keep a lookout for infections. If it is deep, doesn’t stop bleeding, or you are worried about it, then seek medical advice.

Doctors understand you’re trying to do your best to stay on top of your health, but some rituals can be potentially dangerous and may need some extra consideration. If you’re not sure whether something you read online is correct, always ask your doctor first.

To your health,

Dr Shubs