Can kids be “too clean”? How often and how rigorously children should wash is not as clear-cut as you might think. If your tot’s face and hands are smeared with jelly or his hair is a tangled mass, a douse of warm water is a good idea—but beyond that, what is the right level of hygiene for kids?

One school of thought, called the “hygiene hypothesis,” suggests that a lack of early childhood exposure to infectious agents and microorganisms increases susceptibility to illness by changing how the immune system reacts to germs. This theory, first developed in the late 1980s, is not without detractors, but recent research, including a 2009 study conducted at the University of California, San Diego, suggests that America’s overly clean, “antibacterial” lifestyle may be weakening children’s defenses against allergens and inflammation. “Germs are not the enemy,” insists Lawrence B. Palevsky, MD, cofounder and president of the Holistic Pediatric Association. “Bacteria on skin play an important role in keeping us healthy.”

Safe, natural cleansers for kids

Consult the Environmental Working Group’s “Skin Deep” product ratings at cosmeticsdatabase.com. Search by ingredient, company, or product (for example, kids’ shampoo). The safest products have the lowest scores on a scale of 0 to 10; all product picks in this article have scores of 3 or below.

Although cleanliness is important for kids of all ages, Palevsky says there is no specific dictate for how often kids should bathe: “About one to three times a week for babies if and when they seem dirty is enough, and as they get older and out in the world it probably makes sense to bathe every day.” In addition to washing off grime, dust, and sweat—which can attract allergens and bacteria—taking baths is a valuable ritual and part of socialization. “Parents use bath time to wind down, relax, and bond with their small children, while kids learn responsibility and self-care as they get older,” says Palevsky.” Here are some basic guidelines for keeping kids clean and healthy.

Next page: Face and body

Face and body

Get reluctant bathers into the tub by creating an enjoyable and regular routine. “Make bath time as fun as possible,” says Nancy Massotto, executive director of the Holistic Moms Network and mother of two boys. “Toys, natural bubble bath, and sometimes having Dad join in the fun makes the process much easier.” Unless the child is very dirty, you don’t need to soap up the entire body—just focus on bacteria-harboring areas such as armpits, groin, belly button, nose, fingernails, and feet. Young kids don’t need a lot of soap on their faces because their oil glands haven’t yet kicked in, but during puberty it’s a good idea to use a mild face soap once a day or more to prevent clogged pores, which can lead to acne. Stick with gentle products that contain natural cleansing and bacteria-fighting ingredients such as tea tree oil, plus chamomile and fennel extracts.

Product Picks: Kiss My Face Kids A Whale of a Soap, Kiss My Face Olive & Chamomile Bar Soap

Hair

Daily hair washing is unnecessary for children (and most adults); it can strip natural, protective oils from the hair, leading to dryness and an itchy scalp. “For most kids, every other day or even twice a week is a gentler approach,” says Massotto. Teach your children to brush their hair daily because it helps distribute oils down the hair shaft. (Does the type of brush matter? “Like many holistic-minded parents, I gravitate toward natural, sustainable materials and prefer wooden brushes with natural bristles because they are smooth on the hair and are eco-conscious,” says Massotto.) When kids reach puberty, oil buildup on the scalp may become an issue, so more frequent hair washing makes sense. Again, use mild products. “Simple, natural products like castile soap work wonders to clean a child’s hair and body without dangerous chemical exposure,” says Massotto.

Product Picks: Healing-Scents Just for Kids Shampoo-Bath-Shower Soap, Poofy Organics Dynamite Detangler Leave-In Conditioner, Dr. Bronner’s Magic All-One! Castile Soap, Widu Wooden Bristle brush

Next page:Hands

Hands

“Time and time again, hand washing with plain soap and water has been shown to be the most effective line of prevention against the spread of germs and disease,” says Stephanie Riley, a naturopathic doctor and mom in Tahoe City, California. Always insist that children wash their hands before meals and after using the bathroom, taking out trash, sneezing, or changing cat litter. Massotto thinks the standard set by most doctors—singing “Happy Birthday” or the ABCs and actively washing for the duration of the song—is a useful one. “The friction from rubbing your hands together is essential to remove the dirt,” she says.

In Riley’s opinion, kids and parents should avoid hand sanitizers containing antibacterial agents, especially triclosan (see “Antibacterial Soaps: Too Much to Handle?” page TK), but she does see a place for them. “Hand sanitizers should never replace proper hand washing with soap and water,” she says. “However, I do believe in having a safe and effective one available for those times hand washing is not an option,” such as when traveling. Opt for products with only 100 percent pure essential oils that are free of artificial fragrances and alcohol, which can dry skin.

Product Picks: All Terrain Kids Wonder Wash Fragrance Free All-Purpose Soap, Chartreuse Organic Liquid Hand Soap, CleanWell All-Natural Hand Sanitizer