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Published December 29, 2011, 11:30 PM

Dirty little secrets: Can your bad habits actually harm your health?

FARGO - When real estate agent Jenny Schuster shows a house for sale to her clients, she says it’s a 50/50 chance whether the bed will be made. She’s stepped on clothes and tripped over shoes while walking people through homes. She sometimes has to pick things up ahead of her clients to get them out of the way.

By: Sherri Richards, INFORUM

FARGO - When real estate agent Jenny Schuster shows a house for sale to her clients, she says it’s a 50/50 chance whether the bed will be made.

She’s stepped on clothes and tripped over shoes while walking people through homes. She sometimes has to pick things up ahead of her clients to get them out of the way.

Schuster also understands. Everyone has their own dirty little secrets, so to speak.

“People are so busy now, and their priorities have changed,” says Schuster, with Park Company Realtors. “Keeping things looking fantastic is the last thing on their list.”

The same is true in her home. “If my bed’s not made, I don’t have a problem with it,” Schuster says. “If I’m going to do dishes or sit down and read to my kids, I’m going to read to my kids.”

When she walks into an immaculate home, she’s actually a bit shocked. “I wonder how they find the time,” she says.

The way we keep our homes has changed, says Carolyn Forte, director of the Home Appliances and Cleaning Products Department of the Good Housekeeping Research Institute.

“I think people are picking and choosing what they want to do,” Forte says. “Clearly most people don’t have the time to do top-to-bottom cleaning.”

More of us operate in “maintenance mode,” she says, integrating chores into our daily routine, thanks to the advent of quick-use products like Swiffer cleaning cloths, daily shower cleaner sprays and disinfectant wipes.

Forte also notes that organizing and de-cluttering have become the new spring cleaning.

“When things look more organized and neater, they feel cleaner, even if they’re not,” she says.

Keeping a clean home is a health issue, particularly for people with asthma or allergies and when food preparation is involved.

Cleaning routines can even affect our self-esteem and sleep.

Consider these data points from recent spring-cleaning surveys by the American Cleaning Institute (formerly The Soap and Detergent Association):

  • 98 percent of survey respondents said they feel good about themselves when their home is clean.

  • 96 percent said having a clean living space is very or somewhat important.

  • 54 percent said they cleaned on a daily or weekly basis.

  • 19 percent don’t clean on a regular schedule, but when they do, they do so very thoroughly.

Making the bed

The National Sleep Foundation’s 2011 Bedroom Poll found that 71 percent of respondents make their bed every day or almost every day.

Women were more likely than men to make their beds. So were married or partnered couples and older respondents.

Those who make their beds regularly were 19 percent more likely to say they get a good night’s sleep every day or almost every day.

For the 29 percent who don’t make their bed, Ken Hellevang can offer you a good excuse.

Hellevang, a North Dakota State University professor and NDSU Extension Service engineer, has studied dust mites in indoor environments.

“One of the places dust mites live is in beds,” Hellevang says. “Their role is to consume the dead skin and things we leave behind. If we get a large number of them in our beds, they can cause problems.”

People can be allergic to dust mites, with symptoms such as itchy eyes, runny noses and skin irritations. Dust mites can trigger also asthma attacks. This is why regular dusting and vacuuming are important.

Ironically, making the bed holds in the moisture our bodies release at night, creating a moist environment dust mites prefer, Hellevang says.

“It may be one of the justifications for being lazy,” he jokes.

Laundering sheets weekly in hot water is the best way to reduce the accumulation of dust mites, Hellevang says.

Interestingly, the American Cleaning Institute’s 2010 survey showed that 58 percent of people were washing laundry in cold water more frequently.

Relationship divider

Our cleaning routines can also have an effect on our relationships. One annual Cleaning Institute survey found 46 percent of couples fight about cleaning, with arguments including who should do the cleaning (27 percent), to how often the cleaning should be done (24 percent) to the best way to clean (17 percent).

Nate Tabbut of Fargo says he had plenty of “dirty little secrets” – an unmade bed, dishes in the sink and piled-up laundry – until he and his girlfriend, Sarah, started talking about moving in together.

“That was the bachelor in me, not wanting to do the work unless absolutely necessary,” Tabbut says. “She told me when she moves in, she’s going to tighten the reins on the cleaning habits.

“She’s the type of girl, when she has enough dirty clothes for a load of laundry, she does it. I keep mine in the hamper until I need to,” he says.

He’s not sure if it’s a difference between guys or girls, or perhaps his analytical way of thinking. For Tabbut, it doesn’t make sense to wash dishes unless the sink is full, or to make a bed when it’s just going to get messed up that night.

“I have an engineering way of looking at things. Don’t do things that are a waste of energy, that are not value-added,” he says.

But he does have his sticking point when it comes to the kitchen: “She’ll use the same rag for the dishes and the counter. I was raised to use separate cloths.”

Forte says in our time-strapped society, people often focus on one or two areas cleaning areas are especially important to them.

The rest may just stay dirty little secrets.

“I think people have accepted the fact that, yeah, it’s important to clean for company and guests, but I’m not going to be as obsessed with that as we were in years past,” Forte says. “You understand when you go to somebody’s house and it’s not perfect because yours probably isn’t either.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5556

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