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”).
This inaccurate interpretation might be your only reference for the disorder—for many years, it was mine. I never even considered I could have OCD (spoiler alert: I do). All this to say that it’s a highly, deeply misunderstood condition. Dr. Nicholas Farrell, licensed psychologist and a clinical advisor at NOCD, underscores this.
“Generally speaking, OCD is viewed through a very narrow lens,” he says. “There’s a failure to appreciate the expansive heterogeneity that exists in the wide landscape of OCD symptoms and subtypes.” In other words, obsessive-compulsive disorder can latch onto just about anything. It’s much more than wanting a tidy, orderly environment—and often doesn’t at all include those behaviors at all.
This article will help clear up misunderstandings about what OCD entails, as well as discuss what could be going on if your cleaning habits have become overwhelming or compulsive. While cleaning habits are far from the only symptoms of OCD, they are central to many people’s experience of OCD. As with any condition, it’s important that we cultivate awareness of the true nature of this illness in order for sufferers to more easily recognize it in themselves and seek treatment.
Is obsessive cleaning a mental health condition?
The short answer is no—but the full answer is a bit more complex. “Obsessive cleaning disorder” is not a mental health diagnosis, but there is a subtype of obsessive-compulsive disorder in which one becomes fixated on 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 sufferers intense feelings of anxiety, discomfort, guilt, or even panic.
It’s much different than having a love of or preference for organization and cleanliness. A quick litmus test: if your cleaning habits bring you joy, it’s not OCD. Unless your persistent cleaning habits are motivated by fear, anxiety, worry, and distress, you likely just have a preference for tidiness.
Dr. Farrell notes that OCD consists of “people engaging in things they feel compelled to do out of anxiety or even terror.” Unlike someone who likes to have a tidy home, their actions actually impair their lives.
What is Contamination OCD?
OCD consists of two main parts: obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are unwanted intrusive thoughts, images, urges, sensations or feelings and they cause a great deal of discomfort or anxiety. This leads to compulsions, which are mental or physical actions done in an attempt to relieve that distress or prevent an unwanted outcome.
Contamination OCD is one common theme among many, including harm, sexual orientation, relationships, scrupulosity/religion, existentialism, and others. Many people’s experiences with OCD don’t fall neatly into any subtype—the condition can latch onto anything that we value.
With contamination OCD, there are probably a variety of things you value that OCD is latching onto. Maybe you value traveling, but your contamination fears prevent you from getting on planes and staying in hotels. Maybe you value going to see live music, but contamination fears prevent you from being in a crowded place. You probably value your and your family’s health, and contamination fears force you to constantly doubt that you’re doing “enough” to protect them.
Some people with contamination OCD fear contracting a life-threatening illness, Dr. Farrell says, but oftentimes, it’s about a “perceived inability to tolerate what it feels like to be contaminated.” He says that people may understand that the likelihood of contracting a deadly disease from a public toilet, for example, is extremely low, “but that doesn’t stop them from having a fear that the feeling of disgust or ‘ickiness’ is intolerable.”
If you find that your cleaning habits have become excessive, feel out of control, and interfere with the life you want to live, that’s a good sign that you’re struggling with contamination OCD.
Here are some examples of what contamination obsessions can sound 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 HIV 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-19 is living on my kitchen counters?
Note that everybody has intrusive thoughts and worries from time to time, but what sets someone with OCD apart is how they interpret those thoughts, and how they respond as a result. OCD makes these 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 wash your hands dozens of times per day, or have an urge to wash them “just right.”
- Excessive wiping down/cleaning of surfaces. You might find yourself going through several packs of disinfectant wipes per week, or cleaning even when you haven’t left the house and no one new has been there.
- Doing excessive online research. You might spend hours Googling questions related to your fears. If there is a particular illness you’re afraid of, you might continuously review its symptoms in order to know what to look out for.
- Mental review. For example, you might try to remember every detail of an event you attended for certainty that you couldn’t have contaminated yourself or others.
- Avoidance. If you are triggered by public transportation, for instance, you’d likely force yourself to find other ways to get to work, avoiding the train at all costs.
- Throwing “contaminated” items away. People struggling with contamination OCD may toss out anything that could have come into contact with germs or contaminants, often according to rigid rules.
These are just examples of the more common compulsions that accompany contamination OCD, but the list could be nearly endless. At their root, these compulsions are any behaviors, internal or external, that are done with in order to feel clean, safe, or certain about one’s fears and anxieties.
Unfortunately, compulsions bring only temporary relief, as they 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” or protect yourself against. But because intrusive thoughts are universal, if we don’t change how we respond to them, we will always fall back into compulsions. We can never do enough of them to get rid of intrusive thoughts.
How can you get help for compulsive cleaning?
No matter what theme of OCD you’re struggling with, it’s highly treatable with exposure and response-prevention (ERP) therapy. This active, behavioral form of treatment works by gradually, intentionally exposing yourself to your fears and gaining tools to resist engaging in compulsions that only make them worse.
Essentially, compulsions make your “comfort zone” smaller and smaller over time, and before long, you’re living your entire life bound by the strict rule of OCD. But when you learn to gain greater control over your comfort zone, you can empower yourself to live a life that isn’t ruled by OCD.
While ERP can be hard work, especially at first, it’s also highly 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.
Access the help you deserve
If cleaning is taking up large portions of your day and brainspace, 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.