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The Five Second Rule – Myth or Fact?

Five second rule cupcake

“Five Second Rule!” whether you’ll admit to it or not we’ve all said it after dropping food. But is it more dangerous than we want to admit to ourselves?


Does food have germs after five seconds on the floor?

Statistically speaking, odds are you’ve picked a piece of food up off the floor and eaten it before. According to one psychologist, William Hallman, since we can’t see germs without a microscope, we don’t think there’s any danger in picking up a piece of food and eating it if it’s only been on the floor for a few seconds. That’s particularly true if the food is something we really want. We’re much more likely to chance picking up that sweet treat, like candy or cookies, than we are to eat a piece of broccoli!


Douglas Powell, who publishes a food safety blog, theorizes that people also follow the five-second rule because we place an emphasis on not wasting food. However, Professor Hallman points out that people may not understand the true consequences of their actions because it takes time for food-borne illness to appear. People may believe that following the five-second rule has no consequences, because they do not connect becoming ill later with the food they picked up off the floor. They’re more likely to blame the most recent thing they ate.


Additionally, people in general can have skewed ideas about how germs are transmitted. Rather than thinking germs are transferred onto surfaces instantaneously, we tend to imagine something akin to little insects rushing to get to the food that has been dropped. If we pick it up before they get there, it’s all fine, right?! Not quite. Germs are transferred to food the instant it hits the floor, but it is true that more germs are transferred the longer food remains in contact with a contaminated surface.


So just how safe (or dangerous) is the Five Second Rule?

There is some disagreement on this. Research suggests the amount of bacteria transferred to food from a contaminated surface depends on the type of food, the amount of time the food is in contact with the surface, and the type of surface itself. For example, carpet was least likely to transmit bacteria, while tile and laminate were most likely. Moist foods also picked up more bacteria than drier ones.


Naturally, the amount of bacteria that is likely to contaminate your food is dependent on how much bacteria is on the floor. Cleaner floors have less bacteria to transmit than dirty floors do. Professor Hilton of Aston University asserts that there is unlikely to be enough harmful bacteria to make you sick on food that has only been in contact with an indoor floor for a couple of seconds. However, he also states that following the five-second rule is never risk-free and food that is visibly dirty should not be eaten.


Professor Donald Schaffner of Rutgers University disagrees. His research found that bacteria will have contaminated your food, regardless of how quickly you pick it up off the floor. According to the Centres for Disease Control, in a study of 32 food-borne illness outbreaks, surface cross-contamination of food was the sixth most common factor. So, Professor Schaffner argues that the risk of food-borne illness from following the five-second rule cannot be ignored.


Bacteria are everywhere,

We come into contact with bacteria all the time. In fact, you have bacteria living on and inside of you right now. Some of the microbiota are transient, which means they can be found on your body at some times but not others. That transient flora can include bacteria you have picked up from surfaces in your environment. You also have resident microbiota that live on and in your body all the time.


In addition to bacteria, fungi are regularly found on the body, and viruses sometimes are too, although not enough research has been done to show whether they are always harmful. In contrast, we know that bacteria can be harmful, beneficial, or simply commensals – organisms that live on our skin and benefit from doing so, but don’t cause us harm. Most of the bacteria on our skin falls into the latter category. However, even commensals help keep us from getting ill by preventing harmful bacteria from colonizing.


Balance is important.

As in many areas of our life, balance is important when it comes to the microbiota in our bodies. Both your gut microbiome and your skin microbiome need to be in balance. You need the good bacteria and fungi to keep the bad bacteria and fungi from taking over. You become ill when too many pathogens (disease-causing germs) build up in your body. Returning to the five-second rule, when you pick up that tasty morsel from the floor, whether or not you become ill depends entirely on the type of germs that are on it and how many there are.


There is some dissension in scientific circles because of this. Some, like Professor Hilton, argue that if your floor is not visibly dirty and the food hasn’t remained there for long, the amount of bacteria on the food is probably so little that you won’t get sick from it. Others, like Professor Schaffner stress, that bacteria will be transmitted instantaneously, so food is instantly contaminated. Both sides of the debate agree that how much contamination occurs depends on the type of food in question, the surface in question, and how long the food remains in contact with the surface.


So, is the five second rule myth or fact?

It depends who you ask, and there is support for both sides. For now, you can assume that any food touching your floor has some level of contamination. What we do know is the stronger and healthier your gut biome is, the more likely you will be able to combat an intruder. Gut health is reflected in our skin and our Hair.Skin.Nails. Collagen Powder with Manuka honey can certainly help with this. For now, you’ll have to weigh the risks and benefits yourself the next time your favorite food hits the floor. Donut on carpet? Maybe you’ll pick it up. Broccoli on a tile floor? Well, maybe the dog can have that one.


Au Natural is committed to helping you create new healthy skin habits. No nasties, no nutrient-depleted fillers, just Au Natural Skinfood.

In kindness,
Tracy – Founder, Au Natural Skinfood


Research links:


‘Five-Second Rule’ for Food on Floor Is Untrue, Study Finds (New York Times, 19 Sep 2019)


‘Five-second rule’ for food dropped on the floor approved by germ scientists (Independent, 15 Mar 2017)


Scientists Study What to Do If You Drop a Cookie on the Floor (National Geographic, 15 Mar 2014)


Researchers prove the five-second rule is real (, 10 Mar 2014)


The Five-Second Rule Explored, or How Dirty Is That Bologna? (New York Times, 9 May 2007)


If You Drop It, Should You Eat It? Scientists Weigh In on the 5-Second Rule (, 2 Sep 2003)

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