Experts are calling for an end to the myth that being too clean in the home is bad for your health.
The ‘hygiene hypothesis’ which was widely publicised in the 1990s attributed rising rates of allergies to "overcleanliness," suggesting children should be exposed to a wide range of potentially harmful microbes.
But officials from the Royal Society of Public Health (RSPH) today stressed this is not necessarily the case, explaining that there is some confusion about the difference between dirt, germs, cleanliness and hygiene.
In a survey of 2,000 people, 23% thought children needed to be exposed to harmful germs to build up their immune systems.
More than half also thought keeping homes too clean was damaging.
But experts said this was "a potentially harmful belief" which could lead to exposure to some dangerous infections.
Instead, they said people should adopt a “targeted hygiene” approach focussing on cleaning specific areas within their home, even if they look clean, as this will help to stop the spread of “bad” microbes.
According to the report we should worry less about cleaning floors, walls and furniture, and concentrate more on surfaces, food preparation, washing dishcloths and putting bedding and towels on a 60C wash.
This more targeted approach to cleanliness could help to cut down on infections such as listeria, e.coli and the norovirus.
Other clean myths the report tackles includes the 36% of people who mistakenly believed dirt is usually or always harmful.
And the 22% of people who never wash and dry dish cloths between use, and almost one in three (32%) who mistakenly believed this was low risk.
Experts also stressed the importance of washing hands with soap and water before eating with fingers, after using the toilet, after coughing, sneezing and blowing noses and after handling and putting dirty clothing in the wash.
Professor Lisa Ackerley, RSPH trustee and food hygiene expert, said: “Getting outdoors and playing with friends, family and pets is great for exposure to ‘good bacteria’ and building a healthy microbiome (genetic material that is essential for development and immunity), but it’s also crucial that the public don’t get the wrong end of the stick – this doesn’t need to get in the way of good hygiene.
“Targeted hygiene undertaken at the crucial times and places is a way of preventing infection that is cheap on time and low effort, and still exposes you to all the ‘good bacteria’ your body benefits from.
“Good hygiene in the home and everyday life helps to reduce infections, is vitally important to protecting our children and reducing pressure on the NHS, and has a huge role to play in the battle against antibiotic resistance.”
Professor Sally Bloomfield, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “The problem is that we have become confused about what hygiene is, and how it differs from cleanliness.
“Whereas cleaning means removing dirt and microbes, hygiene means cleaning in the places and times that matter – in the right way – to break the chain of infection whilst preparing food, using the toilet, caring for pets etc.”
It isn’t the first time we’ve been warned we’ve been cleaning all wrong. Earlier this year we learned we haven’t been washing our bed sheets anywhere near enough – and it could be triggering allergies and other problems.
A recent study found 90% of homes had three detectable allergens, according to IFLScience – and your bed could be a breeding ground for them.
Turns out we’ve been washing our hands all wrong too.
Deputy chief medical officer, Dr Gina Radford, believes the majority of people aren’t spending long enough or washing their hands in the right way, which is putting them at risk of common infections.
Worse still, this failure to carry out what she described as ‘basic hygiene’ is actually contributing to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance, which is serious stuff.