John F. Kennedy was a man who knew the importance of a good handshake. During his campaign lkr the presidency, he would sometimes shake thousands of hands in a single day — so many that it would leave his hands raw.

He was so obsessed with the power of a proper handshake that he commissioned a study on the subject. The answers provided (look the person in the eye, use a firm grip, don’t shake too much, etc.) in part helped Kennedy achieve his reputation as a man of the people.

Donald Trump may be spouting some very populist views on immigration and trade in his run for the presidency, but it’s going be tough to earn a similar empathy from the regular folk for one simple reason: He doesn’t like to touch people. A self-confessed germaphobe, Trump doesn’t even like to push a ground floor elevator button because it’s been tapped by so many people.

A self-confessed germaphobe, Trump doesn’t even like to push a ground floor elevator button because it’s been tapped by so many people.

This does not sit well with the masses, let alone the PTA crowd. Trump especially avoids shaking hands with teachers, since they are likely to be have been “in touch” with too many germy kids.

Trump has what he calls a borderline case of germaphobia — aka msyophobia — that the American Psychological Association defines as one of the more common forms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Symptoms include fanatical self-cleaning, usually hand scrubbing, after every contact with potential germs, which are also religiously avoided. Take it too far and you end up like Howard Hughes, the billionaire aviator and tycoon who spent the last decades of his life in seclusion to avoid germs, living in darkened, “germ-free” hotel rooms where he lay naked or walked around in tissue boxes to protect his feet from contamination.

Trump is clearly not anywhere near that zone. And as much as he hates it, he will occasionally shake hands with someone on the podium. He’ll even buss them on the cheek. He does want to be president, after all.

Nor is he alone in his fear of bugs. The list of famous germaphobes includes Howie Mandel (who told People magazine last month that he hasn’t shaken hands in eight years), Gwyneth Paltrow (who brings her own combs and brushes to the hairdresser) and Jessica Alba (who sprays hotel bedding with Febreze before sleeping under strange sheets). “It’s an antibacterial spray and I spray everything!” she says.

Some germaphobes who have to be in contact with the public manage their fears with the help of hand sanitizers. Jerry Sienfeld (always a cleanliness freak on “Seinfeld”) reportedly carries antibacterial wipes so he can pull one out after any human contact. Matt Lauer is so concerned with germ exposure that he uses Purell immediately after shaking hands with fans of “The Today Show.”

So are all these people just a little bit nuts?

“A little bit of hand washing is a simple and easy precaution, but the anti-bacterial stuff is crazy,” says Dr. Ruebrush.

Yes and no. The Centers for Disease Control says that good hand hygiene is one of the best ways to avoid getting sick and spreading infectious germs to others. So washing hands before eating or after using the bathroom is a common-sense approach to preventing the spread of infections. Obsessively using hand sanitizers is a whole different class of behavior, however, and actually not a healthy habit.

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“A little bit of hand washing is a simple and easy precaution, but the anti-bacterial stuff is crazy,” said Dr. May Ruebrush, an immunologist, medical educator and author of the book, “Why Dirt Is Good: 5 Ways to Make Germs Your Friends.”

Over-sanitizing is bad for two reasons, Ruebrush said. First, our bodies are made up of millions of helpful bacteria. According to the Human Microbiome Project, which was completed two years ago by the National Institutes of Health, more than 10,000 microbial species occupy our bodies and help, among other things, with our digestion of food. Kill all the bacteria you’re exposed to and you kill the good stuff, too.

Secondly and perhaps more importantly, if we are not exposed to foreign bacteria and germs on a regular basis, our immune systems grow weak.

“Every single bug that your immune system whacks in the nose builds your immunological muscle,” Ruebrush said. “If you don’t keep your immune system busy with what it should be doing, then you end up with allergies and autoimmune diseases.”

So while a healthy fear of germs is, well, a healthy fear (you DO want your doctor to wash up before the operation), just don’t take it to extremes. A little bit of dirt every now and then not only won’t hurt you, it will make you stronger — and it’s better than ending up like Howard Hughes.


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