Going Grubby: The Primal Benefits of Dirt, Dust and Dishevelment

soilClearly, cleanliness is next to godliness, as they say, in this country. The number of products devoted to the sacred rite of purging and scouring American households staggers the imagination. (Ever roamed the cleaning supply aisles at Target? It’s a trip unto itself.) Every strength, size, scent, packaging, active ingredient, and formula (Would you prefer powder, gel, spray, cream, or specially concentrated disk?). But wait! There’s the anti-bacterial, virus-killing, and “odor shielding” options. And, of course, we now have a plethora of “green” cleaners infiltrating the line up. (Some more green than others.)

But just what do we get for the infinite invention of the last thirty or so years? Are our living quarters really all that much cleaner than our grandmother’s homes? Have we truly transcended the power of elbow grease, hot water, and simple routine?

While basic sanitation has clearly made a critical difference in human health, what happens when old-fashioned diligence becomes super strength obsession?


Cat Dust Pan

We all remember learning in school that 90% of household dust is made up of sloughed human skin. Yeah, it grossed us out, but is it really such a major health threat that we use language suggestive of military assault to “combat” it? We tend to think that there are some useful things in there. How about pet dander? Numerous studies have shown that exposure to pet dander throughout childhood reduces the incidence of pet allergy and asthma.

We agree that if you can write “wash me” in the dust on your window sill it’s time to dig out the Swifter. (We didn’t say we were fans of filth.) Keeping a handle on the dust that accumulates is important, we think, but not because of the heebie jeebies elicited by the skin statistic or any aesthetic reasoning. It’s those nasty flame retardant particles (PBDEs) that get kicked up from furniture and other household items we talked about a couple of weeks ago. (Suddenly that human skin sounds pretty good.) Nonetheless, we don’t believe in flying off the handle. Cut out conventional flame retardant products where you can and happily retire the white glove test.


Dirty Feet

O.K., this one’s our favorite. We could write an entire post “Ode to Dirt.” Suffice it to say, since our long lost days of mud pies, too many of us have forgone the unique pleasure of luxuriating in nature’s emollient.

For anyone who’s had a mud mask or massage, you likely need little convincing. For those of you who lived in the mud as children much to the desperate chagrin of your mothers, we know the love isn’t something you truly outgrow. (You wouldn’t happen to be outdoorsmen/women now would you?) But if you don’t fall into these categories, consider that your run-of-the-mill, basic, unassuming, backyard soil can act as an anti-depressant? You bet your buckets! Naturally occurring bacteria in the soil, it turns out, trip the neurons that produce serotonin.

As for soap, consider it overrated. There’s genius in that skin of ours – a nifty little “acid mantle,” to be specific, that protects the skin from dehydration, inflammation, and cracking that leaves it open to infection.

As for the typical household cleaners designed to rid your house of every speck of dirt that may trespass beyond your doorway? Well, as we said in our chemical load post, the endocrine-disrupting and respiratory damaging chemicals that make up so much of those products seem to be a much greater threat (understatement) than the good old dirt that Grok lived, ate and breathed.


Messy Desk

O.K. We don’t have much of a “health” argument to make with this one. In fact, household clutter has even been linked to higher obesity rates. However, in light of the “clean” obsession, are we overdoing it on this front too? There’s the part in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when Ferris describes Cameron’s house (to paraphrase): It’s like a museum. It’s very beautiful, but you don’t dare touch anything.

In Grok’s day (and perhaps in our grandmothers’) it was probably easier to keep a clean house because – well – people just didn’t accumulate as much stuff. In the age of Rubbermaid bins and The Container Store, isn’t it so easy to just keep adding to the collection as long as everything ends up with a place to “live,” as professional organizers call it?

We think there’s a place for dishevelment to be sure. To affirm the old adage, recent research suggests that the owners of messy offices are more creative than those with very neat spaces. Apparently, the proverbial, creative, “light-bulb” moments tend to come as a result of mental happenstance. The mind finds momentary distraction in a “side track” thought (or random unearthed document) and has the chance to make new and novel connections. Sound true to you?

In the spirit of good old Mother Nature, the opposite of dishevelment isn’t meticulous organization. In one setting, one moment, it’s layer upon layer of rich detail. Stark spareness in another. (Perhaps there’s something to living with both possibilities. Hmmm?) In either and any case, it’s messy, dirty, dusty, rough, ragged and will probably leave a mark. In the postmodern, super sanitized, Fabreeze-misted world of Mr. Clean versus Grok, thanks, but we’ll hang with Grok any day of the week.

Have your own thoughts to share on the joys of living with dirt, et al? Send ‘em our way!

sonicsquirtgun, Dan Coulter, mastermaq, Soil-Science.info Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

8 Ways to Reduce Your Chemical Load

A Sanitized World is a Healthier World?

10 Things You (Likely) Didn’t Know About Your Immune System

TAGS:  Hype

About the Author

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

22 thoughts on “Going Grubby: The Primal Benefits of Dirt, Dust and Dishevelment”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Thanks for another great post. I think a key point about dishevelment is just what you say: “people just didn’t accumulate as much stuff” in Grok’s day. Yes, in this modern age we don’t need to live in a museum, but we also don’t need to hoard clutter and surround ourselves with it. Grok traveled light!

  2. Household cleaners are so toxic for the most part! The things that really bother me are the air freshners like the Glade plugins. I wish people had to research those before they were allowed to use them. How do you want to die is right. Would you rather breathe Ocean Breeze or Strawberry Apple to death? And the worst part is people subject their children, pets and guests to these chemicals… not just themselves.

    1. I hear you……open a the windows or doors have indoor plants that clean the air and put out oxygen…..use the money not spent on air fresheners [anyway fresh air doesn’t have a smell] to build a nice retirement free of the usual suspect ailments ‘they’ say are normal.

  3. Pretty cool post, enjoyed it very much….I find it true that I am more creative when my workspace has more mess and is more “busy” it seems to make my mind function better in some kind of weird way….

  4. I gotta say, when I have one of those weekends where I am on the beach, surfing, running, getting dirty all weekend, and not taking my first weekend shower until sunday night – it always marks the sign of a good weekend. I love that sweaty dirty feel!

  5. I agree with Son of Grok, I would never plug one of those things in and waste electricity just to give the house a better scent. I much prefer incense, I think it works better and has a better scent too.

  6. I cringe at the people on the commercials smiling and inhaling the Febreeze/Glade/Lysol sprays or scents. Kill a few more brain cells! Disgusting. You can get natural citrus sprays if your house truly smells that bad.

  7. I’ve been paying attention to this issue for a while, since there is mounting evidence that recent generations of children and adults are accumulating a massive load of metabolism-damaging toxic exposures to many pervasive compounds. That could be one of the facets in the rising rates of obesity, diabetes and other metabolic disorders, as well as sexual developmental disorders, and some cancers, particularly for children. Unlike Grok, we and our younglings have been increasingly developed in a human-created chemical soup since pre-conception. Is it any wonder that weights are rising, precocious- as well as delayed puberty ranges are expanding, boys are increasingly developing breast tissue, sperm rates are diving world-wide, and infertility is rising?

    Simply put, the FDA and the EPA aren’t doing their jobs when it comes to erring on the side of caution with these exogenous endocrine disruptors, because industry rules the roost and we are seduced by the “better living through chemistry” marketing mantra, even with the so-called “eco” products. We can’t use our bodies and our children’s bodies as a laboratory. Some of these compounds used in the manufacturing process as well as the products themselves are extremely persistent and hard/impossible to remove from the environment/our fat tissues.

    New consumer products come out all the time, claiming to be better than the conventional products, but are they? From what I have seen in the local “natural” markets, these household and personal care products are largely the same as conventional products, perhaps minus a problematic ingredient or two, but dressed up (market-washed) with a couple drops of an aromatic scent and described with “friendlier” terms (coconut-derived, plant-derived, etc.). I’m not convinced that many “natural” products are appreciably different from their competitors in substance. For instance label on a Body Shop cream isn’t very different from a similar P & G product, once one cuts through the semantics (most consumers don’t take the time to understand the ingredient terms).

    I’m learning that I can just do without so many of these products anyway. I clean with simple things like vinegar & baking soda, ordinary soap, hot water, and a broom or vacuum cleaner. I’m removing and not replacing synthetic items that are saturated with flame retardant chemicals and choosing materials that are naturally less toxic or flammable (replaced synthetic w-2-w carpeting with cork floors and wool area rugs, for example).

    There are simpler options for personal care, too. I eat more saturated fat and less omega 6 polyunsaturated oils now and find I have less problems with dry skin (and less of a susceptibility to sunburn and age spots, too) – or I can treat any dry skin with coconut oil. I more often cover up or avoid strong sun instead of covering my skin for hours with sunscreen chemicals. Teeth can be brushed with homemade tooth powders, mostly baking soda or salt flavored with some mint oil,(and it doesn’t have to go into the quart-sized zipbag at the airport!). I’m experimenting with cleaning my hair with “mud clay” now (not nearly as bad as it sounds), instead of SLS-based shampoos . Ten days into it, it’s a bit different, but so far so good. I have found new space in my bathroom, kitchen, and closets with fewer products to store.

    BTW, I don’t think the issue with dust is the skin flakes as much as it is the excrement of the dust mites that live on the skin flakes. The mite’s droppings are usually what causes the allergic reactions.

  8. Agree about those plug in scented things and sprays. But incense and candles are pollutants, also.
    The kitty sure is cute but man do they shed. I don’t know why my daughter developed asthma when she was around 16, since we had a lot of cats in the house. None of us smoked. My mother chained smoked until she was about 57 and my brother and me don’t have asthma. My daughter is now a vet and deals with it.

    I’m reluctant to replace my old carpet due to the new carpet chemicals.

  9. Amy, I’ll take my chance with incense any day. I absolutely love it. It’s all a matter of personal choice though.

  10. There is an article in Psychology today that talks about growing your own vegetables. In the article it states; “The soil is a rich repositiory of microbes and other organisms with which we’ve coexisted for the beginning. ….it looks increasingly like ingesting components of the soil itself might be as critical to human health as the very finest fruits and veggies.” It goes on to state the research and talks about how the “Mycobacteria” stimulate the immune system and boost serotonin levels in the brains of mice.

  11. “it looks increasingly like ingesting components of the soil itself might be as critical to human health as the very finest fruits and veggies.”

    My dad, who has been backyard gardening organically since the 60s, always eats some of his produce right in the garden, just giving a quick wipe to remove the grit and loose soil, even carrots and other root veggies. At age 73, he is in rather good shape.

  12. I definitely agree with household cleaners being toxic. However, not much was said about soap other than it being over-rated.
    Should we not use soap? I use baking soda as my soap, toothpaste, and shampoo. It is all I need to cleanse my body. However, it usually leaves my skin rather dry, I am not sure if this is necessarily healthy. I also wonder if I am absorbing large quantities of sodium in the process.
    Anyone come up with any better solutions?

  13. I don’t understand why most people don’t use vinegar and water or baking soda as household cleaners anymore. It cleans just as good as the new chemical laden stuff and it’s better for the environment, your own health and your pocket book! People can google search homemade cleaners and find information on how to make their own.

  14. I live on a farm, deal with cow poo, dog poo and garden. My house gets tracked daily. Doesn’t worry me at all. But I always wash my hands after I deal with money. Weird, Huh?

  15. This post is an anathema!

    Frankly in my opinion, exterior disorder and “dishevelment” reflects personal interior disorder.

    A dirty & dust filled house or exterior yards is shameful and unnecessary in this day and age.

    You don’t have to use “toxic” chemicals to clean. Ever heard of vinegar,a bucket of hot water, rags & elbows grease? Regular household ammonia won’t kill you either.

    As a Pennsylvania German Farm Wife I live on a farm too 🙂

    My house and kitchen is spotless. My pantry & closets well ordered.
    So is my barn, grain shed, machine building and chicken houses etc. Garden and fields are well tended too.

    People who stop to buy produce or to order meat feel better in a clean environment. It’s obvious that somebody cares and isn’t put crap in their food.

  16. The American Lung Assn, if I’m not mistaken, has recommended that house ductwork not be cleaned since doing it delivers more dust into household air than leaving it in place. (There are obvious exceptions, of course, such as ducts being coated with dryer lint, a fire hazard, which is common with forced air systems having a return near the laundry.) By extension, it would seem that any time dust is disturbed without totally removing it, the amount dispersed and loose dust remaining are probably a greater respiratory hazard than doing nothing, if the dust is not aesthetically objectionable, such as on visible surfaces. Tracked in dirt can contain all sorts of nasty parasitic worms and fungi and will wear rugs and grind the finish on floors, so it should be removed. Clutter looks like hell, but many people, like myself, keep much better track of their papers in various piles than in file cabinets or boxes.

    Like it or not, others will intuitively judge us by the order of disorder of our home. The exception here would be my stepmother, for example, whose fetish for cleanliness and order casts a deathlike pall over an otherwise nice home. Goethe noted this, that there’s nothing more lifeless than an excess of decorative orderliness, like the prig’s home we can’t get out of fast enough. At the other extreme, the slob-with-animals whose house is a pigsty tells us she couldn’t give a damn about anybody but herself.

    1. “Tracked in dirt can contain all sorts of nasty parasitic worms and fungi and will wear rugs and grind the finish on floors, so it should be removed.”
      It turns out parasitic worms and the the stuff in dirt is good for you. I’m more concerned about my health than my floor finish! You can clean with natural cleaners but still have a constant amount of fresh air and dirt coming inside. I also don’t give a damn if other people are judging me. If they are judging me they’ve got a problem in the first place. Also, pets make peoples skin biomes healthier, and over all health better BECAUSE of the micro biomes on the pets.

  17. I believe in a place for everything and everything all over the place. And the only time I ever lose anything is when someone decides to neaten up for me.