Katherine Ashenburg: We used to be more concerned with hand-washing than body-washing

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Katherine Ashenburg is the author, most recently, of “The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History.”]

IT’S hard to see Americans as under-washed. Sales of antibacterial soap, tooth whiteners and “intimate hygiene” products (wipes and sprays) are skyrocketing. Scientists actually connect the rising rates of asthma and allergies in the West to our overzealous cleanliness. And yet, in a compulsively sanitized culture, cleaning one part of the body — the hands — seems to be more honored in the breach than the observance. Studies show that hospital doctors resist washing their hands, and gimlet-eyed researchers report that only about 15 percent of people in public restrooms wash their hands properly.

Our ancestors would have been bewildered by this discrepancy between relentlessly scrubbed bodies and neglected hands. Depending on their era and culture, they defined “clean” in a wide variety of ways. A first-century Roman spent a few hours each day in the bathhouse, steaming, parboiling and chilling himself in waters of different temperatures, exfoliating with a miniature rake — and avoiding soap. Elizabeth I boasted that she bathed once a month, “whether I need it or not.” Louis XIV is reported to have bathed twice in his long, athletic life, but was considered fastidious because he changed his shirt three times a day.

But through all these swings of the hygiene pendulum, one practice never went out of style — humble, ordinary hand-washing. Which was fortunate, because hand-washing is the one cleansing practice canonized by modern science, a low-tech but effective way to prevent getting and passing on the common cold and infections from Clostridium difficile to MRSA, SARS and bird flu....

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