Contrariwise*: Dirt is good for you

Our obsession with cleanliness just might be our undoing.

Man in hazmat suit

Weekly Newsletter

The best of The Saturday Evening Post in your inbox!


Also be sure to read 7 Microbes That are Living on You Right Now by Nicholas Gilmore. 


I am not the neatest of people.

I shade more toward Oscar Madison than Felix Ungar. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t cover myself with slime, but I don’t want to live in a scrubbed-down, super-hygienic world. That’s why I’ve observed my fellow Americans’ cleanliness obsession escalate over the years with something between dismay and horror.

It’s hard even to get dirty anymore. In many public spaces, Purell dispensers seem to be replacing potted plants for decor. My pet peeve is the sanitary wipes installed at supermarket entrances, presumably so you can wipe down the handle of your cart. Really? We’re afraid of getting a few stray microbes on our hands?

This is wrong. Look at the way babies explore the world by sticking things in their mouths, says The New York Times science reporter Jane E. Brody, arguing that the practice may provide an evolutionary advantage. “Researchers are concluding that organisms like the millions of bacteria, viruses, and especially worms that enter the body along with ‘dirt’ spur the development of a healthy immune system,” she writes.

Dr. Joel V. Weinstock, the director of gastroenterology and hepatology at Tufts Medical Center, told Brody, “Children raised in an ultraclean environment are not being exposed to organisms that help them develop appropriate immune regulatory circuits.” There’s evidence that germ-free child rearing may be behind the rise in immune system disorders like MS, type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, and allergies.

“Children raised in an ultraclean environment are not being exposed to organisms that help them develop appropriate immune regulatory circuits.”

This is not to deny that public health measures of the last century, like eliminating contamination in water and food, have saved countless lives, but clearly we’ve taken a good idea and run with it to the point of absurdity.

It’s all about balance. Mary Ruebush, Ph.D., a microbiology and immunology instructor and author of Why Dirt Is Good, writes, “The typical human probably harbors some 90 trillion microbes. … The very fact that you have so many microbes of so many different kinds is what keeps you healthy most of the time.”

So, let’s stop trying to disinfect the world. It’s time to welcome a little dirt into our lives.

—Jorge Jetsohn

*“Contrariwise,” continued Tweedledee, “if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.”

This article is featured in the March/April 2017 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives. 

Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now


  1. I’ve always felt that, the idea that your immune army needs a reason to fight to exist. Nations (and people) that don’t arm themselves are easily victims of the first tyrant (germ) that wants a piece of it (you). Get down and dirty (not mindfully).


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *