Do you eat the dirty fruit?
June 24, 2008 7:53 PM   Subscribe

This question is for chronic hand-washers that use soap. Why is it not alright to wash your hands with just water before a meal, but it's perfectly kosher to just rinse a piece of fruit off under the faucet before consumption?

This is a serious question and I've really, really pondered this. Tons of people have their nasty, grubby hands all over the fruit at grocery stores, yet we only rinse it with water before eating. Are the same people that eat these fruits the same ones that insist on washing their hands with soap before a meal? It doesn't make sense to me. Or maybe people actually use soap to clean fruit? Please shed some light on this for me since I'm a non hand-washer.
posted by MaryDellamorte to Health & Fitness (29 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The temperature of the water and the length of time spent washing (i.e. rubbing your hands together) is more important than soap as far as a typical hand-washing goes.
posted by phunniemee at 7:56 PM on June 24, 2008

Washing Produce
Before eating or preparing, wash fresh produce under cold running tap water to remove any lingering dirt. This reduces bacteria that may be present. If there is a firm surface, such as on apples or potatoes, the surface can be scrubbed with a brush. Consumers should not wash fruits and vegetables with detergent or soap. These products are not approved or labeled by the Food and Drug Administration for use on foods. You could ingest residues from soap or detergent absorbed on the produce.

posted by dhartung at 8:02 PM on June 24, 2008

Because fruit can't grab genitals.
posted by furtive at 8:03 PM on June 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

You are missing the point of my question.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 8:03 PM on June 24, 2008

Because fruit can't grab genitals.

But people's hands that touch the fruit can.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 8:04 PM on June 24, 2008

You know how oil and water don't mix? Well your skin produces oils, and rinsing it with just water doesn't effectively get it off. Germs stick to your skin in that oil. Soap helps dissolve the oil, which helps rinse away both oil and bacteria. Fruit does not leech oil like your skin does, so in theory it doesn't need soap to help wash away any oil-stuck bacteria. (I suppose there could be some oil on the fruit from other people touching it at the store, but that would be so much less than what's on your hands... Hopefully it wouldn't matter.)
posted by vytae at 8:05 PM on June 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Okay, vytae, that makes a lot of sense. Then why do some people insist on washing their hands with soap after handling money and touching door knobs? Wouldn't those knobs and bills have the same minimal amount of germs that fruits have?
posted by MaryDellamorte at 8:08 PM on June 24, 2008

Or, if you're looking for a more psychological answer: People know where their own hands have been. Using the bathroom, recapping the nozzles on their car tires after filling them, changing the baby, whatever. It's immediate knowledge. To consider that other people have touched your fruit, possibly several days ago, and had touched similarly disgusting things before doing so... that's several mental steps away. Ignorance is bliss, and it's a lot easier to ignore the the unknowable dirt on out-of-sight strangers' hands than the knowable dirt on your own.
posted by vytae at 8:09 PM on June 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

I don't know about the money and door knob issues. I'm not personally enough of a germophobe to understand the psychological reasoning behind those decisions. My guess is that it's not rational, though. People think certain things are particularly germy, so they insist on washing their hands after touching them, even though there are probably germier things out there that they don't notice.

Money and public doorknobs do get contact from a lot more hands than fruit does though, I'd wager. That gives them a lot more opportunity to pick up some nasty bug from the 1 person in 1000 (or however many) who is actually carrying a germ worth worrying about.
posted by vytae at 8:17 PM on June 24, 2008

There are products targeted at people who worry about these things.
posted by zadcat at 8:27 PM on June 24, 2008

"Why is it not alright to wash your hands with just water before a meal, but it's perfectly kosher to just rinse a piece of fruit off under the faucet before consumption?"

To answer your question - in most cases, cleanliness is more a state of mind than anything else. I wash my hands before a meal because I know where they've been and what they've touched throughout the day. But an apple... I know other people have touched it, potential pesticides on the surface, whatever - it looks clean enough, so a rinse will do.
posted by minus zero at 8:29 PM on June 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Not your question: but a vinegar and hydrogen peroxide wash does a good job on the bacteria on your produce.
posted by glibhamdreck at 8:30 PM on June 24, 2008

What's wrong with bacteria, anyway? We're around bacteria constantly, breathing and eating bacteria all the time. Tons of different kinds of bacteria live within us and around us to help us ingest food and create our environment.

Sure, bacteria makes us sick sometimes. But usually our immune system can take care of it, and I think you need a pretty substantial quantity to become infected (that's the case with viruses, too). When you touch the bathroom doorknob (not everyone washes their hands...) and then lick the brownie mix (with raw egg) off your fingers, you do just fine.

My feeling is that the reason we wash fruit is mostly because we want to wash off any pesticides that may be left on the skin of the fruit. Pesticides can be toxic and could do us some serious damage. We also reduce the quantity of bacteria, which makes life easier for our immune systems. But I think that's less important than we usually assume.

Nevertheless, I'm a "chronic hand-washer" who uses soap. Why? Because when I was growing up my parents told me it was the "clean" thing to do. I think ideas of "cleanliness" are basically the result of the environment in which we grew up. (And the degree to which our immune systems are able to handle common bacteria is connected to how "clean" we are...people in developing countries are far better able to handle a lot of bacteria than those in the West.) It's not necessarily rational.
posted by monkey85 at 8:31 PM on June 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

By chronic hand-washers, do you mean people with that particular flavour of OCD?

If so, there's not much of an answer to be had; the obsessions and compulsions, and the limits of them, are largely irrational.

In really bad instances, the contamination obsession can grow and spread to new areas... It can start off with hand-washing, then a spate of news stories about tainted produce can turn them into hand- and fruit-washers. Then they hear that, for instance, washing machines can harbour bacteria. Now they're hand- and fruit-washers, who also decontaminate their washing machines with a full bottle of bleach before and after each load. And so on, and so on...

Why did the person only wash their hands before they started washing their fruit? Because it didn't occur to them that the fruit could be contaminated. Why didn't they decontaminate their washer previously? Didn't register on their contamination radar.
posted by CKmtl at 8:36 PM on June 24, 2008

A lot of good answers here, thank you. I think I get it now. I've never worried about germs and hand washing my entire life so it's good to have a different perspective on this.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 8:44 PM on June 24, 2008

The temperature of the water and the length of time spent washing (i.e. rubbing your hands together) is more important than soap as far as a typical hand-washing goes.

Unless your hands are made out of metal or something you can't tolerate water temperatures high enough to kill the bacteria. No 120F won't cut it. So, yeah, the soap is more important than the water temperature.
posted by Justinian at 8:55 PM on June 24, 2008

Hi Mary. Thanks for the personal question.

My hands are covered with hair, loops, whirls, etc to make it easier to feel stuff. Because of that though, there are millions of ridges where nasties can hide.

Most fruit, on the other hand, have RELATIVELY SMOOTH skins. Also, I discard MOST skins. I wash them only to keep my hands clean. Washing them with soap would be silly.
posted by hal_c_on at 8:58 PM on June 24, 2008

yeah I wash fruit to hopefully eliminate some of the pesticide, I'm not too concerned about the bacteria from people touching it because I touch things all day that other people touch. The more bacteria that gets into my system the stronger my immune system gets so the theory goes. From what I read there seems to be evidence building that children who have parents who are germ-phobic seem to be more susceptible to allergies and asthma.
posted by any major dude at 9:12 PM on June 24, 2008

I rinse vegetables with a touch of soap anyway. If there is serious cross-contamination (from meat on the truck or the supermarket, which is presumably what happened with that tomato/salmonella outbreak), the bacteria usually has a slime film and sorry, that doesn't rinse off instantly. Same with fecal contamination from field workers on fruits... that won't rinse off instantly either. I'm definitely no germophobe, but I take no chances with salmonella or anything that could incapacitate me. It only takes an extra five seconds to prevent trouble.
posted by crapmatic at 9:38 PM on June 24, 2008

When I lived in Latin America, many stores sold products that purported to disinfect vegetables. I never used them, and didn't suffer any consequences, but I did know plenty of people who used those products on their salad greens and other vegies eaten raw.

Here is a webpage for New Zealanders worried about food safety when they travel; it purports to summarize both USDA and WHO guidelines on food safety. The most extreme regimen is to both scrub the fruit with detergent and give it a quick soak in diluted bleach; that seems an awful thing to do to something that you are going to put in your mouth, but in truth it probably won't hurt you, any more than all those Europeans who don't rinse the soap off their dishes suffer any bad effects from doing so.

As with all aspects of cleanliness, these things are more psychological than real. So do what makes you feel good, but if it gets really out of step with what most people are doing (and not suffering negative effects from), you may want to reconsider.

So, yeah, the soap is more important than the water temperature.

From the Wikipedia page on hand washing:

Washing your hands with soap and water kills germs

This is misinformation

Plain soaps have minimal if any antimicrobial activity. In several clinical studies, hand washing with plain soap failed to remove bad microorganisms (pathogens) from the hands of hospital personnel. Hand washing with plain soap can result in an increase in bacterial counts on the skin. Occasionally, contaminated plain soaps have colonized hands with Gram-negative bacteria

But then if you look at this "handwashing fact sheet" from the state of Wisconsin DHFS, it says:

By rubbing your hands vigorously with soapy water, you pull the dirt and the oily soils free from your skin. The soap lather suspends both the dirt and germs trapped inside and are then quickly washed away.

Basically, hands are an extremely effective oral/fecal connector -- your hands touch things that have fecal matter on them, like your itchy butthole, and then you pick that thing out from your teeth three minutes later. Fruit is not an effective oral/fecal connector -- very few fruits are sprayed with blackwater (strawberries have been an exception, in a few cases) or pick up much fecal matter in the process of going from farm to store to your kitchen. So therefore you wash your hands carefully and often so as to not get nasty diseases like cholera and exciting parasites like worms, and you rinse your fruit to remove some dirt, pesticides, and random germs that might be along for the ride. You don't scrub your fruit with soap because fruit rarely has much on it that will make you sick.
posted by Forktine at 9:40 PM on June 24, 2008

I, for one, used to buy Fit when they sold it in grocery stores because I actually do like to wash my apples with soap before I eat them. Grapes too. The trouble is getting it off takes longer because you can't scrub grapes the same way yourub your hands together to get the soap off. But they do make soaps specifically for fruit & veggies.
posted by GuyZero at 9:41 PM on June 24, 2008

Usually I rinse fruit, sometimes I do soap it up. I wash mangoes with detergent to prevent rashes more than to prevent infection, and while living in Ukraine I rinsed produce with bleach water because plain tap water wasn't necessarily safe either.

And this suffices me. I've eaten plenty of herbs, vegetables, and berries straight off the plant, with whatever dust/pollen/mold spores/radioactive rainwater that might have entailed. I ascribe my remarkable freedom from allergies to a childhood spent doing this. You've got to eat a peck of dirt before you die. But that's generic out-in-the-world dirt and microflora. Human-specific pests are another story, which leads me to doorknobs and money.

I reckon doorknobs get an order of magnitude more handling than fruit does, and money gets two. So there's a proportionally higher chance that they have pest-laden skin crud on them, and after I've dealt with them, I'll wash, because the things they carry have evolved to exploit humans. "Wash your hands whenever you get home" has been a useful habit for me, because of doorknobs and money and shaking hands and banisters and bus poles and whatever else; it dramatically reduces my hand-borne germ exposure through thoughtlessly munching on snacks or rubbing my eye or whatever.
posted by eritain at 11:27 PM on June 24, 2008

Some people do soap their fruits & veggies.

Oh, like the previous two commenters for example.
posted by salvia at 11:29 PM on June 24, 2008

Compulsive hand washing is classic OCD.
Don't wash your hands unless they are dirty. If they smell clean they are clean. I'm not even convinced that you need to wash fruit to remove pesticides. Detergent is not edible and does not taste good so don't put it on food.
posted by w0mbat at 1:20 AM on June 25, 2008

For the record, heavily used doorknobs (subway poles, etc) and even money sometimes feels oily from hands - fruit doesn't.
posted by bettafish at 2:31 AM on June 25, 2008

Don't wash your hands unless they are dirty. If they smell clean they are clean.

Is that right? What does flu smell like?
posted by OmieWise at 3:36 AM on June 25, 2008

Honestly? i think we're just lazy when it comes to fruit. And we haven't had news about germy fruit shoved in our faces as much as we've had news about germy hands shoved in our faces. Ingnorance is bliss.... ahhhhhhhhh.....
posted by Kololo at 8:27 AM on June 25, 2008

This question seemed... odd to me. And slightly frivilous. Then I read it over again, and I think my initial reaction was undeserved. And I think I get what you're asking now. That being said...

I think the bottom line is rationalization. People who are very particular ("obsessive" seems too clinical a word) about washing their hands have a good reason for it - our hands are, and get, very dirty. We know this, because we're around our hands all day, and we know what they get into. And we read articles, know about diseases, etc. Now fruit, we might hear about some issues with pesticides, for example. But they are fleeting. They don't register in our heads as big problems. So our brains rationalize away the "problem" with fruit (or maybe weigh it as smaller), but not the "problem" with dirty hands (or weigh it as greater).

I'm sure there are more "thinking issues" involved here (people might over think some issues, assign greater risk to different factors, incorrect assumption of facts, etc.). But I think rationalizing is the key. (Case in point... I read a study that stated that our computer keyboards have forty times the germs than a toilet. I know several people who have read the same figures. But none of them wash their hands after working at their computer.)

And just another data point for your research... I knew a woman who was a "hand-washer", and she washed fruit (like apples & pears) with soap and water. FWIW.

Just my opinion.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 2:25 PM on June 25, 2008

it's perfectly logical, skin at body temp supports pathogens, fruit at room temp or fridge temp is less likely to. You are washing pesticides and dirt off the fruit but cleaning bacteria and viruses from your hands.
posted by daveydave at 3:51 AM on June 29, 2008

« Older What should the person who's read everything read?   |   Adult grad gift ideas. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.