The term ‘good hygiene’ can be one subject to varying interpretations. What one person, family or household defines as acceptable might not quite cut it with another.

Nonetheless, maintaining a good standard of hygiene is obviously a crucial factor in reducing the presence of bacteria around the home, and limiting the risk of illness.

Cleaning kitchen surfaces before and after preparing food, wiping fixtures and furnishings regularly to remove dust; these are the most basic measures the vast majority of us take in keeping household bacteria and airborne irritants to a minimum.

But there are other chores some might not undertake so rigidly, or invest quite as much importance in.

With spring (also known as cleaning season, but also known as allergy season) now firmly upon us, this week we’re devoting our attention to what some might consider to be household hygiene grey areas; and how a lax approach in these areas can potentially impact upon health.

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Beds and bedding

How often to change bed linen might seem obvious to many. However, in a 2014 YouGov poll, 10 per cent of Britons admitted to leaving their sheets on for a month before washing them.

Often bedding might not seem visually dirty after a week or two; but let’s not forget that we’re shedding skin cells all the time, and that we spend a third of our lives between the sheets.

Over the course of several days and weeks these skin particles can build up, and attract small dust mites. It’s not the mites themselves that are harmful, but the droppings they produce, which when breathed in can exacerbate allergy and asthma symptoms.

So how often should you wash bed linen?

  • Hygiene experts generally advise changing it every week, with two weeks being the maximum window of wear.

A clean bed doesn’t stop at just bed linen however. Pillows and mattresses can also harbor dead skin and dust mites. In fact, stories have abounded in recent years regarding the average proportion of pillow weight which is made up of dust mites and fecal particles (between ten and 33 per cent, depending on how old your pillows are and what you read).

Regardless of how accurate or exaggerated these claims are, it is important to clean your pillows and duvet on a regular basis to prevent irritation from dust mites and the potential spread of fungal spores (a potential cause of fungal skin infections).

  • Wash pillows and duvets in the machine three to four times a year if you can. Those containing down or feathers may be dry clean only, so make sure you check the label first.
  • Going over your mattress with a vacuum cleaner is crucial to remove irritants too. Try to do so with the same regularity: either each time you turn it over or once every three months.

Hairbrushes and grooming utensils

The assumption for some might be that, because you mostly use your hairbrushes, combs, curling tongs and straighteners on clean hair, that these utensils will invariably stay clean themselves and not require periodic attention.

Once again, this isn’t so.

Hairbrushes and combs can harbor a range of bacteria; the longer you go without cleaning them, the more likely it is that you’ll transfer this to your scalp, increasing the risk of dermal irritation and potentially even skin infections. It’s when this bacteria penetrates a cut or break in the skin that cellulitis also becomes a risk.

  • Remove leftover hair from your brushes and combs after each use whether you’re running them through clean hair or not, in addition to deep cleaning them with hot water and a small amount of shampoo every one to two weeks.

Similarly, residue from cosmetics can gather on hair straighteners and other heat tools such as curling irons over time, as can bacteria.

  • Cleaning heat tool plates once monthly is recommended, either with designed-for-purpose cleaning pads, or simply with a damp cloth or cleansing wipe.

Makeup brushes, which are obviously applied directly to the skin, can be another source of infection when not cleaned regularly, and lead to breakouts of acne.

  • Renowned makeup artist Bobbi Brown suggests cleaning makeup brushes once a week to prevent buildup;
  • while Lisa Potter-Dixon of Benefit Cosmetics recommends that those with ‘problem skin’ (prone to irritation and infection) should clean them even more regularly, ideally once daily.
  • She advises doing so with a baby shampoo, and leaving them to air dry overnight on a towel.

Men should be aware of the dangers of an unhygienic electric shaver, which again can cause spots and skin irritation.

  • Carefully remove any excess hair and debris from the shaver after each use, and clean the blades according to the instructions provided.

Towels

It’s not uncommon to find towels in the kitchen performing double duty (drying dishes and hands). This may seem logical and even environmentally-friendly to some; after all surely we only ever dry our hands after thoroughly washing them, so in theory no (or at least very little) bacteria ever comes into contact with our towels.

In reality, however, this isn’t the case. Often we’ll use hand towels after we’ve simply rinsed them in between cooking chores, thereby transferring bacteria onto the towel. When these same towels are used to dry dishes and kitchenware, this then contaminates them.

One of the biggest risks associated with bacteria-contaminated kitchenware is of course food poisoning; but ingested germs from hands can also cause viral infections such as gastric flu.

  • In addition to having one towel for hands and one for kitchenware, you should once again make sure you’re laundering them regularly.

Just how often is a subject on which experts tend to differ:

  • some say that tea towels and dishcloths should be changed every day and left to dry on a radiator between uses,
  • whereas others think that changing and washing them two to three times per week is sufficient.
  • The general consensus among hygiene experts on hand towels is that they should be washed two to three times per week.

The bathroom is another area in the house where towels might be used by many to serve more than one purpose. But care should be taken to differentiate between bath towels and hand towels; the former is used to dry the whole body, and might still harbor bacteria and skin particles when used after a quick shower. And again, this is bacteria which can easily be transferred to the hands after using the bathroom.

  • Hand towels in the bathroom should be cleaned with the same frequency as those in the kitchen.
  • Ideally bath towels should be laundered no less regularly than once a week to prevent the buildup of damp and mould spores, and limit the chances of an infection.
  • Remember to hang them on a heated towel rack between uses.

Ventilation

Many of us will designate one day of the week to cleaning the house, during which we’ll dust household surfaces and vacuum the carpet and floors.

But one vital rule of cleaning which we’ve perhaps all been guilty of is not opening windows to let the disturbed dust and debris out; when these particles are trapped in the house and swirling around, they can exacerbate conditions like asthma and trigger allergic rhinitis reactions.

Condensation is another reason to keep the home well ventilated. This occurs when the temperature inside the home falls, and moisture in the air settles on windows and sills. Over time, this can collect and form into damp and mould, another exacerbating factor for those with allergies affecting the airways.

So how long should windows be kept open for?

  • To prevent damp, most window fittings are now manufactured with small vents, and it’s advisable to open these on a daily basis so that moisture in the air can adequately escape.
  • Furthermore, opening windows for a couple of hours in freshly cleaned rooms will better allow dust particles and airborne irritants to escape.

Regularly cleaning vents to remove dust is important too, particularly for those sensitive to airborne irritants.

Hand sanitation

Washing our hands is something most of us will admit to paying more attention to when we’re out and about, but it's just as important inside the home as it is outside of it.

It’s especially the case for those who live in shared accommodation that germs can easily be spread through contact with communal surfaces and door handles, as well as through devices such as remote controls and keyboards.

So what’s the magic number?

Answer: there isn't one.

  • The Global Hygiene Council considers six times a day as the ‘basic hygiene minimum’, but whether you’re at home or not, it’s crucial to wash them each time after going to the toilet, and each time before you prepare food and eat.
  • In reality then, the frequency with which you wash your hands each day should be in double figures.

You can find more on good hygiene practices at home on our allergy information pages.