Can Being a Germaphobe Prevent Illness? Not Necessarily.

Janet Tiberian Author
By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
June 17, 2024
Woman wiping handle of shopping cart

Many of us take active measures to control our exposure to germs. This includes carrying hand sanitizer, cleaning public spaces with antiseptic wipes and stocking our homes with antibacterial soap.

During the COVID pandemic, these tactics were strongly encouraged and became common. Before 2020, some of these methods may have been considered a little extreme – maybe even germophobic. Some people got to extremes: Constantly washing their hands or using hand sanitizer every time they touch a surface, avoiding social situations and public spaces, even taking multiple showers a day. You may not mind being called a germaphobe if it keeps you healthy. But does it? In many cases, probably not.

What are Germs?

Germs, also known as microbes, are everywhere. They can be found in the air, plants, animals, food, soil and water. Some germs have a purpose; for example, certain types of germs are needed to maintain your digestive health. Some germs don’t help or harm you. And of course, some can cause infections. There are four basic types of germs.

Bacteria – are microscopic one cell organisms that multiply quickly and rely on nutrients from their environment to survive. Helpful bacteria can be found on the skin and gut. On the skin, it’s known as S. epidermis and protects the skin from water loss and damage. And in the gut, it’s flora and helps the intestines break down food, absorb nutrients, produce vitamins and stave off harmful bacteria. Of course, not all bacteria are beneficial. “Bad” bacteria can live on phones, faucets and doorknobs, and cause mild to severe infections such as ear and sinus infections, strep throat and bacterial pneumonia. Food poisoning is usually the result of harmful bacteria entering your body via food. Serious bacterial infections are treated with antibiotics. These prescription medications either kill the bacteria or interfere with its metabolic processes, preventing the bacterium from multiplying. Antibiotics are prescribed based on the type of bacterial infection you have.

Viruses – are microscopic capsule-like organisms that contain genetic material. They’re much smaller than cells, making it easy for them to invade cells, reproduce, highjack normal cellular function and ultimately, destroy the host cell. Common viruses include viral pneumonia, chickenpox and shingles, common cold, Covid and influenza. Serious viruses are treated with antiviral drugs that help block the reproduction and spread of the virus. Antibiotics are ineffective for viral infections; however, if the viral infection raises the risk of a secondary bacterial infection, your doctor may prescribe them.  

Fungi – are multi-celled organisms that may be microscopic or macroscopic. They flourish in damp, warm places. Some fungi are edible such as mushrooms, yeast (to make bread) and molds such as the blue-green veins that appear in cheeses like roquefort, gorgonzola and Dorset blue vinney. But some fungi are problematic, causing infections. Fungal infections usually begin on the skin, causing redness and itchiness. One example is candidiasis. It’s caused by an overgrowth of Candida albicans yeast and can cause skin, vaginal and oral infections, including thrush, a mouth and throat infection that can be caused by taking inhaled corticosteroids to manage asthma, antibiotics or birth control. Dermatophytes, another fungi, can cause athlete’s foot, ringworm and jock itch. Many these fungal infections are treated easily with over the counter or prescription medications. However, they can worsen, spread and raise the risk for sepsis, particularly if your immune system is compromised. And fungi like cryptococcus neoformans (a yeast pathogen) and Aspergillus (a species of black mold) can cause life-threatening infections that may require multiple medications to treat.

Parasites – are organisms that need a host to survive. They thrive by living on the host’s nutrients. This enables them to reproduce, potentially causing problems such as skin rashes or intestinal issues or brain and lung infections. There are three basic types of parasites. The ectoparasite are insects and arachnids such as ticks, mites, lice and fleas that nestle in your skin and live there. Helminths are parasitic worms like tapeworms, roundworms and flukes that usually infect the intestinal tract, but brain and skin infections also are possible. Lastly, protozoa, single cell parasites that can infect blood, intestinal tract, brain, skin and eyes. Some better-known parasitic infections include malaria, headlice and pinworms. Treating these infections involves a combination of antiparasitic, antibiotic and antifungal.

Possible Defenses

No one wants to be sick. Can sanitizing products help? Here’s an overview of some common products.

Antibacterial (also known as antimicrobial or antiseptic) soap was developed to help prevent bacterial infections. Some studies found that these soaps may be able to kill some harmful bacteria, but they also kill helpful bacteria. However, there isn’t enough science to suggest that washing with an over-the-counter antibacterial soap is more effective than plain soap and water, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Association.

Take home advice: For now, stick with regular soap and water, but use liquid soap instead bar soap. Germs spread easier using bar soap.  

Hand sanitizer (also known as hand antiseptic, hand disinfectant, hand rub or handrub) was created to kill viral and bacterial germs on your hands. Experts advise that soap and water are probably more effective than hand sanitizer, but brands that use between 60 and 95 percent alcohol can be useful. Regardless of the alcohol content, hand sanitizers are ineffective against norovirus germs, the most common strain of gastroenteritis (more commonly known as stomach flu) and Clostridium difficile (C. diff).

Take home advice: Hand sanitizer can be an effective alternative for hand cleaning if soap and water aren’t available. For now, follow the FDA’s guidance regarding brand selection and make sure the product has at least 60 percent alcohol. Wait for your hands to completely dry after using it. Wiping your hands before they’ve dried reduces the effectiveness of the sanitizer. Hand sanitizers may clean hands that have been soiled (e.g., if you were gardening or playing outdoor sports) or if they’re greasy (e.g., if you were working on a car), but they won’t provide protection against germs.    

Wipes were created to clean surfaces and items. There are a handful of types.

  • Antiseptic - these wipes are primarily available in clinical settings and are used to sterilize tools and clean wounds, but some brands are sold commercially. They’re made from antibacterial or biocide agents and are most effective killing bacterial and some viral germs and are most effective on wet pathogens. (Non-commercial biocides can have antiseptic, disinfectant, pesticide, herbicide, insecticide and fungicide properties). They’re a great substitute for soap and water but can cause some skin issues. 
  • Disinfectant (antibacterial and antiviral) – these wipes can be effective for cleaning surfaces at home and in the office; however, if you don’t follow the instructions on the package, you risk spreading germs. Many of these products work by using bleach and/or chlorine as ingredients. Bleach is effective in killing many germs including bacteria, fungi and viruses (even influenza), but is deactivated by organic material, (e.g., blood, saliva, etc.) Chlorine based products area usually diluted in water and after a month will lose between 40 and 50 percent of their concentration. Additionally, disinfectant effectiveness varies from brand to brand. And wipes (even varieties without chlorine) degrade over a year, rendering them ineffective. Unfortunately, “best used by dates” are generally not included on packages.       
  • Alcohol – these wipes are used in both clinical and home/office settings. Alcohol wipes prepare the skin for injection and are used in for first aid, as well as cleaning objects like glasses, keyboards and telephones. They’re made from isopropyl and water and don’t leave a toxic residue. They can kill bacteria and viral germs but are much slower than antiseptic wipes. On the downside, they’re highly flammable, don’t clean wounds and can irritate the skin.    

Take home advice: Antiseptic wipes, can be a good choice if you’re traveling or don’t have access to soap and water. Both disinfectant and alcohol wipes may be helpful, have limited value.  

Disinfectant spray - was created to clean surfaces. They’re similar to disinfectant wipes in that they are affordable and can be effective but break down over a year. Also, it’s important to follow bottle instructions which include spraying the disinfectant onto a cloth, as opposed to a surface to prevent the powerful chemicals used in disinfectants from damaging a surface. But that’s not the only problem. When sprayed, these chemicals can irritate your eyes and throat, and cause headaches. And some disinfectants contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs evaporate at room temperature, making it very easy to inhale them, raising the risk of respiratory illness, allergic reactions and headaches.

Take home advice – Sprays can be effective, as well as problematic, ruining surfaces if used incorrectly and potentially causing breathing difficulties and allergic responses. If you’re wondering how to effectively clean your house, there is good news. You can make your own cleaning products. Check out these recipes from the American Lung Association >>

What’s the Bottom Line? 

While it’s okay to take proactive steps to keep germs at bay, too much of a good thing may not actually help. In fact, it could hurt. For example, some products that help control germs also kill good bacteria. And many cleaning products release chemicals including VOCs, which can cause breathing issues. Many of these products have a limited shelf life, providing a false sense of cleanliness and wasting your money. And of course, if you tend to be anxious or have compulsive issues, relying on these products can develop into a true fear of germs – or mysophobia.    

Preventing Infections

Using products to help you keep your area as germ free as possible is important. But arguably more importantly, you can lower your risk of contracting an infection with these five tips:

  1. Strengthen your immune system. 
  2. Wash your hands regularly. 
  3. If you’re single, avoid unprotected sex. Viruses beyond STIs like influenza, colds and Covid can be exchanged through bodily fluids. 
  4. Cook your food thoroughly. 
  5. Take precautions against mosquitoes and ticks.

Consult your primary care physician for more information on your immune system. If you don’t have a doctor, consider joining an MDVIP-affiliated practice. They more have time to help you in your pursuit of a healthier lifestyle, which can help boost your immune system. Find a physician near you and begin your partnership in health »

About the Author
Janet Tiberian Author
Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES

Janet Tiberian is MDVIP's health educator. She has more than 25 years experience in chronic disease prevention and therapeutic exercise.

View All Posts By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
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