The ‘hygiene hypothesis’ as originally formulated by Strachan, proposes that a cause of the recent rapid rise in atopic disorders could be a lower incidence of infection in early childhood, transmitted by unhygienic contact with older siblings. Use of the term ‘hygiene hypothesis’ has led to several interpretations, some of which are not supported by a broader survey of the evidence. The increase in allergic disorders does not correlate with the decrease in infection with pathogenic organisms, nor can it be explained by changes in domestic hygiene. A consensus is beginning to develop round the view that more fundamental changes in lifestyle have led to decreased exposure to certain microbial or other species, such as helminths, that are important for the development of immunoregulatory mechanisms. Although this review concludes that the relationship of the hypothesis to hygiene practice is not proven, it lends strong support to initiatives seeking to improve hygiene practice. It would however be helpful if the hypothesis were renamed, e.g. as the ‘microbial exposure’ hypothesis, or ‘microbial deprivation’ hypothesis, as proposed for instance by Bjorksten. Avoiding the term ‘hygiene’ would help focus attention on determining the true impact of microbes on atopic diseases, while minimizing risks of discouraging good hygiene practice.