The first time I ever truly felt skeeved out by the idea of germs was during my first ever job in the food business. Up until then, I was someone who shrugged off the idea of sticky hands, crumbs sprinkled over refrigerator shelves, and public bathrooms. After all, your body needs to be exposed to different bacteria in order to strengthen its immunity against them, right? Well, once I stepped into the restaurant's kitchen all those years ago, with soot collecting on the floor and droplets of grease left to rot on countertops, I began to think germaphobes are healthier, rather than more irrational compared to the people who, like me, just accepted the fact that germs are literally everywhere.
Still, just because these tiny microbes lurk around every corner without your knowledge, that doesn't mean you should purposely make contact with them if you can clearly avoid it. In fact, CNN reports that new research shows non-germaphobes could learn a thing or two from, say, their roommate who diligently washes her hands after every meal, or the mother who's disgusted by dirt and other unmentionables that could be clinging to your shoes when you enter the house.
The truth is, the English professor who carries a travel-sized sanitizer in her purse and coats her hands with it after touching a stack of graded papers is more likely not to get sick than, say, her classmate who skips washing his hands after going to the bathroom in between classes. It sounds like a no-brainer when I put it into perspective, right? So then why are germaphobes often criticized or mocked for their behavior, when you and I both know it's usually better to be safe than sorry anyway?
Germaphobes feel disgusted by germs, and according to this new research, that grossed-out response can keep you healthy because it makes you more cautiously aware of your surroundings.
Researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) issued an online survey to over 2,500 participants, asking them to rank 75 potentially disgusting scenarios — like feeling something sticky on a door handle, or pouring lumpy, stale milk over your cereal in the morning — from "no disgust," to "extreme disgust." The results showed, CNN reports, that the things most likely to induce all the disgusted feels included hypothetical images like open wounds oozing pus, and bad hygiene like extreme BO or someone picking their nose in public. From there, Hello Giggles explains, the researchers categorized what they refer to as the "disgust cues" based on these responses. Things like poor hygiene, animals/insects that bring disease, promiscuous sex, atypical appearance, wounds, and spoiled food were the most likely to make people's skin crawl.
Call me squeamish, but this all sounds pretty grotesque to me; I'm getting chills just typing it all out. But what's really interesting about this study is that, according to lead researcher Val Curtis, there's a pretty significant difference between what your ancestors felt disgust toward (like things that could potentially lead to disease) and the scenarios people associate with disgust today. According to Curtis, these disgust cues "may or may not be a good guide to what makes us sick." In other words, it's understandable that you'd be grossed out over your brother's inability to chew with his mouth closed, but his messy eating habits aren't likely to affect your health, you know?
Now, this isn't all to say you have to become a germaphobe in order to be healthy; you can still be conscious of germs without becoming totally fixated on them.
For the record, no matter how many times a day you wash your hands or wipe the toilet seat before you squat, catching the common cold or a scratchy throat might be inevitable. Germs are a part of life, but that's not to say you shouldn't make the conscious effort to be more hygienic, even if that means not seeing bae for a weekend to avoid catching their stomach bug, or taking a few extra minutes before bed to spray down your countertops or dust your ceiling fan. It sounds excessive, but being put off by germs isn't your best friend's way of being extra; it's their way of being health-conscious, and that's not a bad thing.
Per Mayo Clinic's definition of an obsessive-compulsive disorder, germaphobia is a form of OCD, and a true germaphobe is "afraid of dirt or contamination." You don't have to be afraid to be healthy, but it's in your best interest to be aware of your surroundings and how you're taking care of your body. Fred Richmond, Ph.D., executive director of behavioral health at Mission Hospital, Laguna Beach, told St. Joseph Health that it's important to stay on top of personal hygiene like washing your hands before and after you eat and when you go to the bathroom, "but there’s a big difference between being sensible and cautious and being pathologically afraid of germs."
To stay level-headed about germs and your health, start small by washing your hands, using sanitizer in public places, making sure to wash the area you prepare your food in, and overall, just being aware of the types of places you're exposing yourself to. Be realistic about where germs are lurking, but also the likeliness of you catching sickness from them. For example, Men's Health points out that, for example, while you might not be able to avoid public transportation, you can make an effort to wipe down the machines you use at the gym. Or when exiting the bathroom, most people touching the door handle have washed their hands, so you don't need to shield your skin from potential germs with a paper towel.
Listen, a big part of being healthy is simply about being more mindful. So the next time you joke that your sister's being a little ridiculous about taking off your shoes insider her home, take a moment to consider where she's coming from. There's nothing wrong with being disgusted by germs, or wanting to avoid them as much as possible, but you don't have to be afraid if you're doing your best.