Kid’s allergies may be linked to how you wash your dishes

Close up hands of woman washing dishes in kitchenParents that wash dishes by hand rather than in a dishwasher may lower their children’s risk of developing allergies according to a new study.

Published in the journal Pediatrics, this study followed roughly 1,000 young children and their parents living in the Gothenburg area of Sweden. Researchers looked into not only if the parents washed dishes by hand or used a dishwasher, but they also investigated behaviors like whether the parents fed their children foods purchased directly from farms, such as eggs, meat and unpasteurized milk. They also looked into whether the children ate fermented foods, which have beneficial probiotic bacteria.

According to a Time Magazine article, the researchers discovered that children in homes where the family hand-washed the dishes instead of using a machine were less likely to have allergies. Only 23% of children whose parents used hand dishwashing had a history of eczema, compared with 38% of kids whose families mainly used machine dishwashing. They also discovered that this relationship was amplified if the children also ate fermented foods or if the families bought food directly from local farms.

As stated in an article from the New York Times, these findings demonstrated only an association, not cause and effect, so it was not clear whether these behaviors directly led to fewer allergies. But it may be the case that these behaviors expose children to innocuous bacteria, which can help strengthen their immune systems, said Bill Hesselmar, an assistant professor at the University of Gothenburg and lead author of the study.

The study’s results add to the increasing body of evidence that suggests getting a little dirty does the immune system some good. Described in the article as “hygiene hypothesis,” this type of thinking speculates that the reason kids develop so many allergies today is because their environments are oversanitized and simply, just too clean. Without exposure to bacteria early in life, children’s immune systems don’t become as hardy as they could be and are less likely to develop an immune tolerance to trivial threats.

Research over the years has linked a variety of early lifestyle factors, like having pets, eating fish and living on a farm to a significantly lower risk of developing allergies. Now this new study suggests that hand washing dishes might be the next behavior to add to the list.

Dr. Hesselmar said in the article that while the sanitizing effect of dishwashing machines can be a good thing, the “less efficient” method of washing dishes by hand might leave behind some bacteria that could have benefits. But he said more research was needed to see if the relationship they found was real and, if so, what was causing it.

However, the study still leaves a few questions unanswered, like why hand washing was only associated with a lower likelihood of eczema and not other allergy-related symptoms like asthma, or why the effect was so significant even though dish washing requires the use of soaps, possibly even antibacterial products.

“It’s an interesting finding and very surprising,” Hesselmar said. “But we have to see if we can confirm it.”

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