... of the microbial kind.

I love social media not just for the ways it allows me to stay in contact with friends and family, but the communities that have developed as well. From specialist communities selling plants to others like ‘A Wilder Child’. A group dedicated to those who are more nature-connected and wanting to encourage outdoor play and exploration (Facebook: A Wilder Child). No points for guessing then that I follow the group. However, a post in February 2019 piqued my interest. It was the above image of the microbial handprint of Tasha Sturm’s own 8-year-old child after he had been playing outside. (Sturm, T. (2017)). Yes, it’s a real image.

Apart from being a beautiful image of the microbial flora that can be found on a hand which Tasha describes mostly as being normal body flora with some common bacterial/fungal contamination (Bacillus species, with the coloured bacteria possibly Staphylococcus epidermidis (white), Staphylococcu aures (yellow), Micrococcus luteus (yellow), Rhodotorula (orange) and an unknown yeast (yellow)). It was also the differing reactions I noted to the image and from which groups. While parents on ‘A wilder child’ were generally cool about it and going wow over the image, some parents on different forums were less ecstatic and rather grossed out about the idea of this sort of stuff being found on their child’s hand especially from playing outdoors.

Tasha’s reason for posting the original image was to show the normal microbial flora to be found on our hands. This is the everyday bacteria and fungal spores to be found around us, all the time. It’s also important to realise that this is an image of the microbial flora after they have been growing for a week on a nutrient-rich agar plate, effectively ideal growing conditions. It’s not something to be afraid of, just aware. Our skin, the largest organ of our body, is a fantastic natural barrier and defence against pathogens. Just remember to wash your hands 🙂 Soap and water are still the best as certain types of bacteria are becoming resistant/tolerant of antibacterial gel/handwashes. So it’s best to reserve washing your hands with hand gel for when soap and water are unavailable. Even just using water is effective, just not as effective as being used with soap. Why try not to use handgels? A recent study has shown that while some bacterial infections such as nutrient-rich were reduced in hospitals, rates of other bacterial infections were not changed or in fact increased. (Pidot, S.J. et al (2018))

It is more than just a fascinating image. It’s a reminder that we are surrounded by a plethora of microbes and many are necessary/beneficial to us. We shouldn’t stop children playing outside, in fact stopping them and having a clean environment can be harmful. Exposure to microbes is necessary for a healthy immune system. (Timmins, B. (2017) ; Umetsu, D.T. (2012)). Not only that but there’s so much more to be learnt and gained through being able to play and explore outdoors.

“Access to active play in nature and outdoors—with its risks— is essential for healthy child development. We recommend increasing children’s opportunities for self-directed play outdoors in all settings—at home, at school, in child care, the community and nature.”

Tremblay, M.S. et al (2015)

With grateful thanks to Tasha Sturm for use of her image.


Facebook: A Wilder Child https://www.facebook.com/awilderchild/
Sturm, T. (2017) https://everythingmicro.blogspot.com/2017/09/simple-science-turned-into-art.html
Pidot, S.J. et al (2018) “Increasing tolerance of hospital Enterococcus faecium to handwash alcohols”, in Science Translational Medicine Vol 10 Issue 452. Available from http://stm.sciencemag.org/content/10/452/eaar6115
Timmins, B. (2017) “Scientist reveals why it’s important to let your kids be exposed to germs”, Independent, 17 July 2017. Available from
Umetsu, D.T. (2012) “Early exposure to germs and the Hygiene Hypothesis.” Cell research, 22(8), 1210-1. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3411171/
Tremblay, M.S. et al (2015). “Position Statement on Active Outdoor Play.” International journal of environmental research and public health, 12(6), 6475-505. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4483712/

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