Kids Need Dirt. For Real! For their HEALTH!

Hi Readers — A bunch of you have been digging (har har) this story about how much protection our kids get from DIRT. This explains my philosophy of housekeeping!

Er…I mean: This explains my philosophy of childrearing. Anyway, here’s a bit of the article, by Murrray Wardrop,  in The Telegraph. (For some reason this story got more play in Britain than the U.S.):

Scientists have discovered that bacteria on the surface of the skin play an important role in combating inflammation when we get hurt.

The bugs dampen down overactive immune responses, which can lead to rashes or cause cuts and bruises to become swollen and painful.

The findings support previous research which suggests that exposure to germs during early childhood can prime the immune system to prevent allergies.

The so-called “hygiene hypothesis” has previously been used to explain why increasing numbers of children suffer allergies such as eczema and hay fever in more developed countries.

Parenting groups yesterday welcomed the findings as “a vindication of common sense” and urged parents to allow their children greater freedom to play outdoors.

Experts at the University of California at San Diego made the discovery by studying mice and human cells cultured in their laboratory.

The team, led by dermatologist Professor Richard Gallo, found that common bacteria called staphylococci, can reduce inflammation after injury, when they are present on the skin’s surface.

Prof Gallo said: “These germs are actually good for us.”

Of course, most Free-Rangers and other sensible folk suspected this all along. (And my book discusses it, too, in the chapter, “Germs, Anti-Germs & Shopping Cart Liners.”) But it’s nice when a new study comes along and explains WHY dirt and kids go so well together.

And why I’ve decided to sit here and blog rather than get out the mop. — Lenore

58 Responses

  1. Oh goodie! Now I feel no guilt whatsoever when I press-gang my children today into helping clean their own (gasp!) toilet in preparation for Thanksgiving guests.

  2. But, of course, I’ll send them outside afterward to roll in the dirt. Possibly kill two birds with one stone by having them weed the flowerbed for me.

  3. I’ve been hearing about the allergy-dirt connection for years, but not about the inflammation response! My best friend had her first child 5 years before I did, and she, a very smart, well-read lady, told me that she only bathed her baby all over once a week to try to preserve the flora of her skin. I’d never heard that. She kept the diaper area clean, obviously, but everything else was just once a week. So I did that with my kids, too, unless it was something like falling into a mud puddle. That baby is now a freshman in college–with no allergies and was pretty healthy though childhood.

  4. My mother-in-law was complaining last Christmas (when I let my kids roll around in the dirt and get so dirty you could barely see their eyes) about how, when her kids were little, they were always sick and she took such good care of them. Meanwhile, her sister let her kids eat off the floor and crawl around everywhere and they never got sick. I was like, hmm….yeah, I think I know why. But being on good terms with her, I just kept my mouth shut 😉

  5. George Carlin was onto this years ago. This is his famous bit on “Germs.”

  6. Unless my kids are really dirty, they only shower about 2-3 times a week. Mostly because it took so much effort to bathe them as babies, that I just didn’t do it every night. Plus, when my mom was over, she would do it and I could relax. Of course, now my 8 yo has reached the smelly stage and he needs to bathe more often.

  7. Yesterday morning I told me wife we should consider moving the boys (6 and 7) up from 1 to 2 baths a week. Then I read this and had second thoughts 🙂

  8. Well, we used to be at 1 bath a week until the smell started. Let your nose guide you!

  9. Every year we have several lice infestation at my kids’ preschool. Admin had to run a leaflet telling us novice parents how to deal with them. One advice was to let our kid’s hair really dirty before washing it, as lice are attracted to clean heads.
    Now I understand why my children were never afflicted with those parasites- they are too smelly! 😀

  10. My husband is a pediatrician, so people assume we are pretty anti-germ. Actually, we’re big fans of dirt–playing in dirt, splashing in mud puddles, the 5 second rule, and not being overly concerned about it. It has taken some getting used to for the grandparents, esp. my in-laws, but his being a doctor gives us plausible deniability. At our synagogue, you call pretty easily which parents don’t care about dirt, as our kids eat their snacks off the floor, share sippy cups, etc.

    We bath our daughter (now 2) every few days, mostly depending on whether her long hair has started to look matted and gross. Plus she likes bathtime, so it is fun for her. But we don’t stress.

  11. I was told by a doctor when my second son was 2 years old (he’s now 29) to not bathe him every day, it dried out his skin too much. Of course once they’re teenagers they drain the river each morning with their showers.

    But I’ve 6 children, never had to take them to doctors except for stitches and one broken arm. Of course I did the whole breastfeeding, natural living approach too, which helped.

  12. My children have always bathed as needed. As infants it was maybe 2 times a week unless they, you know, spit up all over themselves. As toddlers it was once a week unless they actually were outside getting dirty or ate something really messy.
    Now that they are older they take showers on Sunday and during the rest of the week…it’s when they need (so after they have sports classes or something). In the summer they take a lot more showers because they get so sweaty. In the winter…not so many.
    They also eat off the floor (got tired of trying to stop them) and play in the dirt outside…they rarely ever get sick.

    Oh, and this was mentioned on House last week. The patient they had was really sick (of course) and they found worms in his liver which they got rid of but that made him sicker. Come to find out the worms were actually good for him because his immune system was shot from never being used as a child (his parents basically kept him in a bubble and never allowed him to have a speck of dirt on him).

  13. Great, now I’ll never get the boys to bathe again if this gets out, LOL

    But seriously, we’re in the ‘Once a week or as needed’ camp. They are very into filth, as I was as a child. Cosmic justice, says my mom.

  14. Did anyone here read the book series ‘All Creatures Great and Small’? There was a character in it who was a slaughter of all the diseased animals that Mr Herriot would send when they were dying and were unfit to pass inspection for human consumption. He was super uneducated and his children played around in his disgusting slaughterhouse in the utter filth. They were very good people but he describes the appalling scene vividly. But no one ever gets sick in that family, they are totally robust.

    Of course he bases his entire book on his own experiences as a country vet in Yorkshire.

  15. My daughter is also of the “dirty” persuasion…. the only reason she’s ever bathed more than a few times a week, is because I found it helped with calming her at night so that she slept better. Now she’s in the “smelly stage” and showers every day.

    We do encourage tree climbing, and mud pies, and bare feet and we have a definite “five second rule”…

    Another note on the allergies: I was once told by my daughter’s pediatrician, if you have a child with a pet allergy- get two. It’s a fact that children exposed to pets early on, are less likely to develop allergies and/or have decreasing sensitivity to any allergies they may have. 😀

  16. My kids are now 7 and 11. My friends used to cringe when I let both of my kids crawl on the floor with hair from a shading dog. Anyone who has a long haired dog will understand, you vacuum but 2 min later the hair is everywhere again. They also used to try and eat from the dog’s bowl when they were little. Everyone survived no allergies. I always had a view that if the kids are exposed to dirt and germs early on, they will develop the natural resistance. I never sterilized any bottles, just washed them like normal dishes. No one got sick. They wear whatever they want in cold weather, they have always been able to tell if they are hot or cold. Even as babies, I used to dress them like I would myself. Interestingly enough, my kids have had fewer colds than most others that are bundled up by their parents. I never scold my kids for playing outside and getting dirty doing so. Just don’t see any harm in that, those jeans and hands can always be washed.

  17. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Europeans used to take only 1 bath a year until the Indians taught them otherwise. The phrase throwing the baby out in the bath water came from infants being the last one in the family to be washed in the same water.

    Its funny that I was given the advice by a job coach to take a shower every day. She didn’t think a daily sponge bath was good enough. I am so sensitive to odors (due to surgery) that I once smelled someone’s perfume 50 feet away, so its doubtful that others could tell how fresh smelling I may be since I’d know before they did.

  18. When I was a kid, I went to a home daycare. All of us used to put stones from the driveway in our mouths, to pretend it was bubble gum. Of course we tried not to let the baby-sitter see, but she’d usually just scold us, tell us to spit it out, and not bother with any real punishment. That’s about as dirty as you can get, but none of us every died from it. If kids did that now, the baby-sitter would probably go to jail for child abuse. I don’t have allergies, but my brother has always had allergies despite living in the same conditions as me. I don’t know what to make of that. Still, sucking on dirty stones doesn’t seem to have ruined either of us.

  19. Baths: twice a week maximum for our boys (4 and 5)
    The baby gets a bath maybe once every 2 weeks (mostly because I don’t remember to do it).
    We don’t have a 5 second rule…if it isn’t covered in dirt, and it is still recognizable as some sort of food, it is fair game. In light of this research perhaps the not covered in dirt requirement is too stringent!
    I wanted my kids to get covered in dirt. My first born HATED getting dirty at the park and believe me, this was not a learned reaction.

  20. It’s always so nice when one’s instincts are backed up by science. My brother and I regularly got filthy as children, but we only got baths once or twice a week (basically when my mother would proclaim “you reek”). We’ve pretty much followed the same approach with our own kids. Of course, having twin boys gives me a bit of an out. There are, after all, only so many hours in a day!

  21. Hear Hear! I have never been part of the hand sanitizer / shopping cart liner brigade. My husband cringes, but I have always figured that a little bit of dirt won’t kill the child. So far, so good, she is pretty healthy!

    Interestingly, in Europe, public toilets NEVER have those paper seat liners that are somewhat ubiquitous in the states – they seem to be getting along ok without them ;-)!

  22. Yeah, I’ve always been fairly lax about “sanitation” and have always practiced one bath a week unless they got visibly dirty or smelled (until the teen years, but they still don’t shower every day except in sports season), and my kids are some of the healthiest I know.

    I never understood why it’s thought necessary to bath babies frequently. Of course you keep the diaper area scrupulously clean and clean the face well after feeding, but they don’t play in the dirt and don’t sweat except in very hot weather. So I never bathed my babies frequently, either.

  23. “Dirt” is the title of chapter 5 in Dr. Larry Dossey’s book entitled:

    “The Extra-Ordinary Healing Power
    of Ordinary Things”

    The chapter is all about the positive qualities of exposure to dirt.

  24. I hate those shopping cart liners.

  25. @catgirl- growing up, my family camped out a lot. if we were hiking up a mountain and one of us got thirsty, my dad would find a pebble, brush it off, and give it to us to suck on to create saliva. none of us seem to have suffered any ill-effects, either.

    @ira- three cheers for dressing your babies like people! i can’t tell you how many kind strangers scolded me for not having a hat on my son as an infant on bright, warm spring days!

    my son (4) gets a bath before church on sunday whether he needs it or not (he usually does), and on special occasions (he’ll get a good scrub before we go to my in-laws’ for thanksgiving tomorrow so he can go wallow in their back yard and get dirty). other than that, i make sure his face and hands are clean when we go out unless he gets super-dirty. he’s one of the healthiest kids i know.

  26. We’re also all about the dirt in our family. Dirt is good.

    But to an extent.

    Don’t forget the incredible advances in health due to Pasteur and germ theory. It may be true that we are discovering that too few germs can cause sickness. But it is also STILL true that too many can cause sickness, too.

    Everything in moderation.

  27. My mother’s pediatrician (the one she had as a child, not the one she picked for us) was apparently ahead of the times (and apparently also one of the ones who worked on the Polio vaccine), and he was saying this back in the 50s!

  28. @Jen Re: The House episode

    I don’t have cable, so I get new episodes of shows like House on a delayed basis via Hulu, and we just watched that episode last night. I had actually mentioned to my husband that I need to look up that premise and see how much validity it has.

    I saw this blog entry and my immediate reaction was “ha! House was right!” 😀

  29. Does this mean helicopter parents will start throwing “dirt parties” so their kids get the proper amount of dirt in their lives without the worry of letting them outside?

  30. Maybe doctors can start prescribing dirt pills? 😆

  31. My child has always been free to play in the dirt, and has enjoyed doing so. We have never used antibiotic soaps and rubs, etc. Always plain old soap and water. And I didn’t hold off on the introduction of new foods for long periods of time. Unfortunately, she has ezcema, seasonal allergies, AND food allergies. So I’m not much convinced by the “hygeine hypothesis”–i.e., early exposure to germs prevents these things. They seem to be born with these things.

    I do believe it doesn’t hurt to play in dirt and to not constantly use those little bottles of antibiotic stuff and to let your kid eat peanut butter at age two, but I’m skeptical that it does anything to prevent allergies an ezcema.

    (My son has the same play in the dirt regimen, the same soap and water only cleansing, and he has no ezcema, no seasonal allergies, and no food allergies, however. I think it’s a biological thing. Why is it increasing? That’s a good question…Is it really, or are more people just RECORDING it at a pedetrician and asking for medicines, etc. than in the past? I had ezcema as a kid, but I don’t know that there’s any “record” of it. I probably have food allergies–I was just never tested for them. Not sure how “increases” are calculated exactly…)

  32. The research was done on skin cells in a lab, not on real people. The study did not look at the effects on children’s health. It is pure speculation. This is what happens when people rely on the media to interpret scientific research.

    I’m all for dirt, but looking for research that justifies your beliefs is confirmation bias. You have to look at all the evidence, or lack of it, to determine trends. Their theory is plausible, but other scientists have plausible explanations as well.

  33. We don’t do antibacterial anything in my house. 5 second rule? Perhaps even 5 minute rule unless the dogs get there first. My kid came home from daycare every day for at least the first 18 months of his life with a ring around his mouth from eating dirt in the play yard.

    I simply washed his face.

    He is pretty bullet-proof when it comes to stomach bugs and colds.

  34. I had a friend who was appalled that I didn’t bathe my baby daily. I told her “how dirty can a baby get?” Let’s be real here, the kid wasn’t walking yet.

  35. Unfortunately, she has ezcema, seasonal allergies, AND food allergies. So I’m not much convinced by the “hygeine hypothesis”–i.e., early exposure to germs prevents these things. They seem to be born with these things.

    The plural of anecdote, as we’re all told, is not data.

    It’s possible that your kid is just prone to these things and that going overboard with the antibacterials would have made it worse. It’s possible that your other child is not prone to these things at all and he could be taking baths in antibacterial gel 10 times a day and it wouldn’t make a difference.

    The trick is to work out what the average is.

    It’s like teeth. I have great teeth – if I don’t brush or floss, my teeth are still fine. (Gums, no, teeth, yes.) My sister’s teeth are horrible – she has to floss and brush regularly just to have a chance of keeping them! That’s just our luck, sure, but for most people brushing will keep teeth healthy and not brushing will make them less healthy.

    Or tests – sometimes you can walk into a classroom totally unprepared, take a test, and ace it. Other times you can study your butt off and still fail. But most of the time we know that studying leads to greater understanding and a higher test score. Just because some people are luckier or unluckier than others doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hold true for most of us.

  36. Our rule is “If he hasn’t eaten any horse poo it’s a good day”. Our 20 month old will spend a morning or two wandering around the stables at the weekend, so it’s not a theoretical risk! Rolls with our dogs, shares his food with them, play in the mud, whatever.

    I did have to hose him down once when he fell into the run-off from the manure heap. That was a bit much.

    So far zero non-routine visits to the doctor, which puts him ahead of almost all of his (mostly much-cleaner) cohort. Of course, results depend on luck as well, but giving his immune system a reasonable education seems like a good idea.

    BTW, you don’t need to be test for food allergies: if you have an allergy you’ll damn well know about it.

  37. @ Colman – Not neccesarily. It took 25 years for me to determine that I’m sensitive (not anaphylacticlly allergic) to cow’s milk. It only makes me sick if I drink a lot of it, which I don’t usually do because I wasn’t raised doing so and never aquired a taste for it. Until I went to college and lived in a dorm where it was all-you-can-drink chocolate milk, which I soon discovered was a bad idea.

    I also grew up in trees and barns and have had no serious allergies or illnesses. My little brother, only 2 years younger, is much more allergic to milk (discovered it when he was 10), has hayfever, dust allergies, and gets bronchitis every year.

    So… probably our family has a genetic predisposition towards milk allergy, which somehow came out worse for him, but who knows about the rest?

    I figure, you stack the deck as best you can, then you’re rolling dice.

  38. Dairy allergy in particular, idaho, is associated with bronchitis and asthma. He may have another food allergy that’s making this worse as well.

  39. Nice confirmation of our favorite saying around here: “Dirt don’t hurt”

  40. THANK YOU! My poor little niece, who is almost 3 years old, is allergic to damn near everything. I’ve always said it’s because her mom over-sanitized every little thing she came in contact with (and still does). My kids, who are in excellent health thank goodness, have come inside from playing literally covered from head to toe in dirt too many times to count. You know what? It all washed off in the tub! Amazing, isn’t it?? 🙂

  41. Whenever someone would comment on how dirty my children got as small children I always answered that a dirty child is a happy child. Now I can add they are healthy children too!!

  42. Awww, my daughter will be so sad…she just LOVES her bath. Dang Pisces babies ;o) This makes me very happy though; it makes me feel better about my childhood growing up on the horse farm and the dirty trouble we’d get into. I remember once we got into a huge mudfight and Mom’s only beef was not to track it in because she didn’t want to mop the floors again! As I always tell my germophobe friends, “God made dirt, so dirt don’t hurt!” Thanks Lenore!

  43. My kids love dirt too. I figure if during the summer I don’t occasionally have to hose them off before letting them in the house they aren’t playing outside enough.

    In winter, well, I’d rather not hose them off but it has been known to happen. They get warmed up really fast after and until this year we haven’t lived where freezing temperatures were at all common.

    I try hard to avoid antibacterial anything. Takes some doing on soaps but it’s possible. The kids are responsible for cleaning their bathroom and the downstairs one that they tend to mess up. A little responsibility is a good thing too.

  44. Dirt is my life! Literally. I make such of a living as I have teaching people how to do back-yard gardening. (Lenore – you and my evangelical neighbor Alison from 5th Ward in Houston are e-buds; I’m out in her back yard most every morning at sunrise checking on the raised-bed garden I installed back when she was preggers with her oldest, who is 9) and a big part of it is teaching the kids (not to mention the parents) that it is OK, nay, way cool, to get your hands very, very dirty. Mr. Earthworm is your friend, and so are all the other little critters, including the ones you can’t see. But snarfing a leaf or a root (or 20) while you are in the garden – long as there are no pesticides – without a rinse is just good eatin’. Dirt and all.

    Funny story – the last winter (yup, we’re USDA Zone 9, where the fun gardens are during the school year) Alison’s youngest was still in diapers she developed a huge fondness for Fordhook Giant Swiss Chard. I mean run out the kitchen door and break a stem off the plant and eat the entire 18″ long leaf raw. This lead to some interesting diaper changes. “Jim, my kid is pooping neon green!”

    All four colors of radishes are doing good. (Sorry about you folks up north.) Ditto all six or seven kinds of lettuce, not to mention the mustard greens and mizuna. Bright Lights chard is doing a lot better than it did last time I trialed it 7 or 8 years ago. My damn dog dug up most of the dill weed; cilantro is coming on a good crop but I’m not sure about this saltwort stuff I’m trying for the first time. But still, not bad for a free range back yard. It all comes out of the dirt.

  45. “The plural of anecdote, as we’re all told, is not data.”

    Very true. And I wouldn’t be skeptical based on my own experience if there were a lot of solid scientific evidence backing up the “hygeine hypothesis,” but, as a previous poster noted, this is but one hypothesis among many, and it is the hypothesis as interpreted via the media. My daughter definitely would have worse ezcema had she used antibacterial soaps (it dries out the skin of anyone with ezcema!); it is prevention I am skeptical of, since ezcema generally occurs within months of birth.

  46. Well, since I don’t think the “hygiene hypothesis” asserts that your kids will be healthy and allergy-free if you expose them to some dirt and germs, but rather the opposite (that they won’t be healthier if you protect them from everything), I don’t think your experience is even really anecdotal evidence against it.

    That is, the hygiene hypothesis doesn’t purport to say that your kids WON’T EVER have allergies, eczema, etc., if you let them get dirty. If I understand it correctly, it says that strict hygiene is of little or negative value in preventing those things. There’s a logical difference in the claims. That said, you’re right that it’s not really established.

  47. Sky,
    I agree with you. I had severe ezcema before I even left the NICU. Because my skin was compromised, I have many severe skin infections as an infant and toddler.

    On the flip side…

    In my case my parents found the more time I spent outside – playing in the dirt, swimming in pools, rivers, streams, and Galveston Bay the less problem I had with my skin. It would get worse during the school year when a) I was stressed out due to uncontrolled bullies b) I was spending less time in the dirt.

    I would actually mix up mud from our back yard and spread it on my skin because it stopped the itching.

  48. […] Kids Need Dirt. For Real! For their HEALTH! Hi Readers — A bunch of you have been digging (har har) this story about how much protection our kids get from […] […]

  49. My mother was a one-bath-a-week-whether-we-needed-it-or-not type. And we also used to “swim” in Lake Eire back when it was declared “dead” in the 1960s.

    I’m fine and I don’t over bathe my kids either.

    Water is a terrible thing to waste.

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  51. Doesn’t anybody what to investigate this claim the new study makes? Or what exactly did they observe and measure to be able to come to this conclusion?

    I mean it sounds like it makes sense, but shouldn’t someone verify this?

  52. @dirtclustit

    Everyone have their conclusion it self, it depends on each one of us how we make a conclusion with this.
    Verify? Yes of course i hope someone outside there could verify this.

  53. Nice article and good reponses. Well kids love dirt and today it is proved that dirt alway not keep you unhealty or full of diseases, but it also heals you.


  54. I think i have to make mistake let my daughter free to play in the land

  55. They’re streaming all episodes of Scrubs live over at for free if you wanna watch it online.

  56. Dirt is often filled with germs and bacteria. So, when I read this piece, I think of people like Semmelweis, Lister and others, who did there best to battle bacteria. It sounds to me like the opposite.

  57. […] their apple in the dirt, pick it up and keep eating it.  They make a mud pie and take a bite.  This dirt is full of microbes, which also help to train the immune system.  Kids on farms get sick less often because they are […]

  58. […] their apple in the dirt, pick it up and keep eating it.  They make a mud pie and take a bite.  This dirt is full of microbes, which also help to train the immune system.  Kids on farms get sick less often because they are […]

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