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OCD and cleaning: When obsessive cleaning becomes a problem

By Elle Warren

May 29, 20246 minute read

Reviewed byApril Kilduff, MA, LCPC

More than likely, you’ve heard obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, used to describe a love of cleaning. There’s even a certain famous reality TV star, known for meticulous organization, who likes to combine her name with OCD (I’ll say it, it’s “KhloCD”). 

But the condition is much more than this, and it can latch onto just about anything you care about. However, the cleaning aspect is certainly central to many people’s experience of OCD, says Dr. Nicholas Farrell, Clinical Director at NOCD, the leading provider for OCD. 

Is there anything wrong with wanting to be tidy? Of course not! What he’s referring to is the type of distress and compulsive behavior that eats up a lot of your time and mental space every day. He’s here to share what you should know about compulsive cleaning and how to get help. 

Obsessive cleaning and OCD

There’s no mental health diagnosis that deals strictly with cleanliness, but there is a subtype of OCD where you become fixated with a fear of germs, contracting an illness, and/or being “dirty” or “contaminated.” It’s called contamination OCD, and like all themes of OCD, it brings intense feelings of anxiety, discomfort, guilt, or even panic. 

It’s much different than having a love for organization and cleanliness. A quick litmus test: If your cleaning habits make you feel accomplished, it’s not OCD. “OCD is about engaging in things that you feel compelled to do out of anxiety or even terror,” says Dr. Farrell. 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5—which is what clinicians use to diagnose psychological conditions, like OCD—describes it this way. But we’ll break it down for you, as well: 

OCD consists of two main parts: obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are unwanted intrusive thoughts, images, urges, sensations or feelings that cause a great deal of discomfort or anxiety. And they lead to compulsions, which are mental or physical actions done in an attempt to relieve your distress or prevent an unwanted outcome.

In the case of contamination OCD, there are probably a bunch of things you value that your condition just can’t let go of. Maybe you love traveling, but your contamination fears prevent you from getting on planes and staying in hotels. Maybe you enjoy going to see live music, but you’re fearful of touching door handles that so many other people have touched, and being in a crowded place. You probably value your health—and your family’s health—but contamination fears force you to constantly doubt that you’re doing enough to protect them.

For some people with contamination OCD, there’s a real fear of contracting a life-threatening illness. But often, it’s about a perceived inability to tolerate what it feels like to be contaminated.

“For some people with contamination OCD, there’s a real fear of contracting a life-threatening illness. But often, it’s about a perceived inability to tolerate what it feels like to be contaminated,” explains Dr. Farrell. “For example, you might understand that the likelihood of contracting a deadly disease from a public toilet is extremely low, but that doesn’t stop you from having a fear of disgust or ickiness that’s intolerable.”

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Symptoms of obsessive cleaning

Here are some examples of what contamination obsessions can look like: 

  • What if I contract deadly germs at the party and bring them home to my family? What if my whole family dies?
  • What if there are germs all over my bed that are making me ‘dirty’?
  • What if I never stop feeling contaminated?
  • What if when I shook that person’s hands, their germs stayed on my skin?
  • What if I contract STD from using a public restroom?
  • I just brushed up against someone’s sweaty arm. What if I get some kind of disease?
  • What if COVID is living on my kitchen counters?

Everyone has fleeting worries like this from time to time, but when you have OCD, those worries feel like serious threats that demand urgent action. That’s where compulsions come in—here are a few examples:

  • Excessive hand washing. You might need to scrub your hands dozens of times a day, or have an urge to wash them “just right.”
  • Constantly wiping down and cleaning surfaces. Do you go through several packs of disinfectant wipes each week? Or clean even when you haven’t left the house and no one else has been there?
  • Doing excessive online research. You may spend hours Googling questions related to your fears—say, about a particular illness you’re afraid of.
  • Mental reviewing, like trying to remember every detail of a place you went to, just to be sure that you couldn’t have contaminated yourself or others.
  • Avoiding tough situations. If you are triggered by public transportation, for instance, you’d likely force yourself to find other ways to get to work, avoiding the subway at all costs.
  • Throwing away “contaminated” items. People struggling with contamination OCD may chuck out anything that could have come into contact with germs or contaminants, often according to their OCD’s rigid rules.

Unfortunately, compulsions bring only temporary relief, and ultimately feed the obsessive-compulsive cycle and cause our fears to grow over time. They reinforce the idea that your contamination fears are threats that you must solve right now or protect yourself against. But with OCD, if you don’t change how you respond to them, you’ll always fall back into compulsions. 

How can you get help for compulsive cleaning?

All types of OCD are highly treatable with a kind of therapy specifically designed for OCD called exposure and response-prevention (ERP). It works by gradually exposing you to your fears and gaining tools to resist engaging in compulsions that only make them worse. 

As Dr. Farrell explains, compulsions make your “comfort zone” smaller and smaller over time, and before long, you’re living your life bound by the strict rule of OCD. But when you learn to gain greater control over your comfort zone with the help of a therapist trained in ERP, you can empower yourself to live a life that isn’t dictated by OCD. 

While ERP can be hard work, especially at first, it’s also truly rewarding. The longer you spend resisting compulsions, the more you will realize that you can, in fact, tolerate uncertainty and discomfort. You will learn that your intrusive thoughts aren’t threats that you need to take seriously, and that you can live life according to your own wishes. 

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If cleaning is taking up large portions of your day and brain space, hopefully you are comforted by the fact that there is language to describe your experience—even if “obsessive cleaning disorder” isn’t the technical name for it. Even better, there are trained professionals who know how to help you. There is a life where you spend less time cleaning and more time on the activities you really value. I encourage you to learn about NOCD’s evidence-based, accessible approach to treating all themes of OCD, including contamination OCD and compulsive cleaning.

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