To a mask-wearing populace who purposefully avoids all things breath and spit, blowing out birthday candles could turn a happy celebrant into a social pariah.
Flinging our fluids around willy-nilly while blowing out birthday candles seems unsafe these days, but was it ever really a sound practice?
In relatively normal, disease-free conditions, it’s OK to participate in this birthday ritual with friends and family.
However, a 2017 Clemson University study in the Journal of Food Research concluded that a birthday cake with blown-out candles can hold up to 120 times the amount of germs found on a fresh cake.
This figure may sound scary, but it’s important to note that while the human mouth contains plenty of germs, few cause problems. Over 700 species of microbes exist in the mouth, but most perform tasks that none of us ever think about.
Even though our mouths are relatively safe under normal conditions, for germaphobes, blowing out candles may still be uncomfortable. What can we do to protect ourselves to the best of our abilities?
Simply avoid eating cake that a sick person blew on. Since most people dodge anyone with the sniffles, this shouldn’t be too hard to manage. When the pandemic ends, though, we should still avoid sick spit.
To demonstrate just how susceptible the average person is to contracting an illness via birthday cake, the staff at Inside Edition experimented with one of their colleagues. In 2019, prior to the spread of COVID-19, they watched as a sick coworker blew out candles on a cake. They then sent before and after swabs to a lab. Within a few weeks, the results came in, identifying bacteria that could cause skin and respiratory infections.
Even if partygoers are increasingly mindful and take extra precautions going forward, though, a social tradition we embedded so deeply in global culture will be hard to give up.
Believe it or not though, there are also benefits to eating cake after someone blows out the candles.
A University of Minnesota study in Psychological Science suggests that blowing out the candles on a birthday cake actually makes the cake taste better.
The study followed participants who engaged in ritual behavior before consuming birthday cake or other food or beverages. The results were so promising that the team looked into how medical professionals could use the experiment to limit surgical pain and promote healing.
Eating a spit-topped birthday cake might be gross, but outside of the pandemic, it’s an extremely harmless ritual. It may even improve the taste of the triple-layer chocolate decadence on your plate.
Be sure to avoid consuming birthday cake if the candle-blower is sick or if you have a compromised immune system.
As we become more conscious of public health, blowing out birthday candles is on our conscience. Still, at the end of the day, it’s pretty harmless.