With obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), certain thoughts can compel a person to perform cleaning rituals or behaviors in order to prevent a consequence they dread.

Specific thoughts, known as obsessions, may compel a person with OCD to perform observable rituals or compulsions to ease their distress.

This includes repetitive cleaning and rearranging of items and furniture.

This article explores the connection between OCD and cleaning and answers frequently asked questions about OCD and cleaning.

Different sponges against a pink backgroundShare on Pinterest
MirageC/Getty Images

“Obsessions” are what characterize OCD. Obsessions are unwanted and uncontrollable thoughts, images, or urges that cause people who experience them extreme anxiety or distress.

These obsessions result in actions — known as compulsions — that a person feels pressure to perform in order to ease the distress that obsessions cause. This may include washing, cleaning, ordering, and arranging things in a particular pattern or order.

While some people love order and cleanliness, OCD goes beyond the preference for an orderly and neat environment. People with OCD need to perform actions in a precise way, following rigid rules.

These compulsions are excessive, take up time (one hour a day or more), and affect a person’s social, academic, or professional life. In extreme cases, the obsessions or compulsions can be incapacitating.

Learn more about OCD here.

OCD presents with a range of symptoms of obsessions and compulsions. Some researchers have grouped these into symptom profiles, also known as subtypes or symptom dimensions.

Below is an overview of the four major symptom dimensions of OCD.

Contamination and cleaning

A person with OCD may show excessive fear or preoccupation with contaminants such as germs, illness, or disease. They may present with the following:

  • fear of bodily fluids, germs, toxins, and others contaminating them
  • fear of contracting a disease or illness
  • fear of spreading germs and infections to others

This can include germs, disease, dirt, bodily fluids, and other substances.

It may also involve mental contamination, which consists of a feeling of internal dirtiness resulting from a physical or psychological violation.

Intrusive memories, images, thoughts, or secondary sources of contamination (people or places associated with the violator) may provoke these feelings of mental contamination.

Other emotional violations that can cause mental contamination include:

  • humiliation
  • degradation
  • betrayal
  • criticism

A person may feel relief by cleansing themselves and engage in different types of compulsions, such as:

  • excessive or repetitive handwashing and cleaning
  • discarding contaminated items
  • separating contaminated from uncontaminated items
  • doing extreme research about a disease or illness
  • employing magical rituals to ward off illogical forms of contamination, such as bad luck

Symmetry and ordering

The need for things to be “perfect” or just right is what characterizes symmetry obsessions. Items need to be correctly aligned and symmetrical. This leads to the compulsive behavior of repeatedly aligning, ordering, evening up, or arranging things.

Symmetry symptoms associate with earlier age of onset and are more common in males. These symptoms link to a poorer outlook and higher comorbidity with various psychiatric conditions, such as Tourette syndrome and suicidal behaviors.

Doubt about harm and checking

A person with an aggressive obsession experiences unwanted thoughts, fears, or impulses that relate to the possibility of harming themselves or others through negligence or carelessness.

Experts may also refer to this as harm OCD. This fear often comes with a heightened sense of responsibility and excessive doubt, uncertainty, or dread.

A person with harm OCD performs repetitive checking behaviors to ease negative feelings and avert what they perceive as dangerous consequences. They may also have other physical or mental rituals, such as repeating “safety” words, phrases, or prayers or withholding certain words or phrases.

Unacceptable thoughts and mental rituals

People with this symptom dimension experience unwanted impulses, thoughts, or “mental images” of committing acts that are religious, sexual, or violent in nature. These intrusive thoughts violate their personal values and morals.

While these people do not have any history of violence nor act on their obsessions, they devote much mental energy to suppressing these thoughts, further increasing anxiety.

On the basis of observable compulsions that associate with the symptom dimensions, contamination and cleaning, and symmetry and ordering, are both subtypes of OCD that have a clear association with cleaning.

The exact cause of OCD remains unknown, but certain risk factors may give a person a higher tendency to develop the condition. These include:

  • having a parent, sibling, or child with OCD, especially if OCD developed during teen years
  • abnormalities in frontal and subcortical structures of the brain
  • childhood trauma
  • history of a streptococcal infection

OCD involves the presence of obsessions, compulsions, or both. Obsessions may include:

  • fear of contamination or germs
  • presence of taboo thoughts concerning harm, religion, or sex
  • desire to keep things symmetrical or in perfect order

The obsessions may cause a person to perform compulsions, which can include:

  • excessive handwashing or cleaning
  • repeated ordering and organizing of things in a particular way
  • repeatedly checking on things
  • compulsive counting

Unlike regular worries and anxieties, these thoughts or behaviors are challenging to control and take up at least an hour daily. While the behaviors may offer brief relief from anxiety, they are not pleasurable.

The thoughts and behaviors also cause significant problems in a person’s life.

Below are some common questions regarding cleaning and OCD.

Can you prevent OCD or an OCD cleaning compulsion?

Because experts do not know its cause, OCD is not preventable. However, early diagnosis and treatment can help control symptoms and reduce their impact on a person’s life.

CBT, specifically ERP, can help prevent a person from performing compulsions by restructuring the mind and altering the learned behavior of performing the compulsion. This involves exposing a person to their fears and having them resist the urge to perform a compulsion.

What is an example of OCD cleaning?

An example of contamination OCD is a person who excessively washes their hands after going to a public place and holding items that others commonly use, such as door knobs and surfaces.

What triggers OCD cleaning?

Exposure to contaminants such as bodily fluids, dirt, and people who appear unwell may trigger contamination OCD. Fear of contracting illnesses may also trigger it.

Meanwhile, an internal sense of dirtiness (mental contamination) may result from thoughts, images, memories, and sources (people or places) that a person associates with a violator.

OCD comes with a range of symptoms of obsessions and compulsions. Cleaning behaviors are known, observable manifestations that associate with two symptom dimensions of OCD — contamination and cleaning, and symmetry and ordering.

Not all cleaning behaviors are OCD. OCD cleaning compulsions tend to be excessive, take up too much time, and negatively affect a person’s life.

A person also does not derive pleasure from compulsive cleaning behaviors, although these may briefly relieve the distress that their unwanted thoughts cause.