Hand Washing Dishes Has One Unexpected Health Benefit

The eternal debate between dishwasher versus hand washing dishes mostly has to do with environmental concerns like how much water and energy you're using and health concerns like which method gets your dishes cleaner. An old study done on dishwashing practices and their effectiveness found that using a machine to wash your dishes actually meant less bacteria on the clean dishes.

But according to a 2015 study published in the journal Pediatrics, there's an unexpected health benefit to hand washing dishes that has to do with the hygiene hypothesis, a phenomenon that scientists have been interested in for a long time. The study, which looked at the dishwashing habits in the homes of 1,029 Swedish children aged between 7 and 8, found that only 23% of children whose parents or guardians hand washed their dirty dishes had a history of eczema, when compared with the families that used a machine dishwasher, where the percentage was 38%. The results suggest an association between hand washing dishes and a reduced risk of developing an allergic disease.

Commenting on the survey, the study's author Dr. Bill Hesselmar of Queen Silvia Children's Hospital in Gothenburg, Sweden, told TIME, "If you are exposed to microbes, especially early in life, you stimulate the immune system in various ways and it becomes tolerant. We thought [hand washing dishes] might be important, but we didn't know, so we asked that question."

Does this mean you shouldn't be concerned about cleanliness at home?

Exposing children to household microbiomes doesn't mean allowing them to roll around in dirt or never shower, according to  Dr. Jordan S. Orange, chief of immunology, allergy and rheumatology at Texas Children's Hospital (via NBC News). Parents should be weighing their decisions with mindfulness and reasonable logic, especially since there's evidence to support fewer respiratory illnesses among people who use hand sanitizers, said Orange. 

What it could mean is that you don't have to be overly cautious about maintaining a perfectly sterile environment. As shared by Johns Hopkins professor and chair of Environmental Health and Engineering, Marsha Wills-Karp, "So one thing I would say is sanitizing every surface in your home to an extreme is probably not a good thing. Our research team showed in animals that sterile environments don't allow the immune system to develop at all. 

It is also important to note that the kids in the 2015 study probably weren't the ones doing the dishes at home, per TIME. How they develop a stronger immunity may have to do with the general level of cleanliness they're exposed to while eating in their households. Bacteria (and allergies) aside, there's yet another unexpected health benefit to hand washing your dirty dishes.

Washing your dishes by hand can be mentally relaxing

Just like stress balls benefit your health, according to a 2015 study published in the journal Mindfulness, washing your dishes by hand mindfully can actually promote stress relief. Commenting on the study, one of the authors and doctoral candidate in Florida State University's College of Education's Counseling/School Psychology program, Adam Hanley, told the university website, "I've had an interest in mindfulness for many years, both as a contemplative practitioner and a researcher. I was particularly interested in how the mundane activities in life could be used to promote a mindful state and, thus, increase overall sense of well-being."

Perhaps it's the feel of the water and soap in your fingers, or maybe it's the visual of dirty dishes becoming clean in your hands. For hand washing proponent Michael Mann (via Greatist), washing dishes by hand can be a meditative experience.

So the next time your dishwasher is broken or you're forced to hand wash the dishes at someone else's home, you might want to stay in the moment and take in the smell of the soap and the sensation of the water gliding down your fingers. In addition to contributing to a home that's going to benefit from the hygiene hypothesis, you might also come away feeling more relaxed.