The Truth About Antibacterial Agents and Hand-Washing
by Jessica Newens
Dec 01, 2009 | 1828 views | 0 0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Has concern over the swine flu got you stocking your house with antibacterial products? Are you washing your hands, washing your dishes, washing your laundry, spraying your countertops and scrubbing your floors with antibacterial cleaning agents?

Chances are, you’re not alone, in a world where many of us brush our teeth with what is effectively antibacterial toothpaste.

Considering today’s germ phobic culture, this fact might not bother you. But before you use antibacterial products, consider this: Antibacterial soaps do not kill cold or flu viruses, and they are considered no more effective at cleansing the skin than regular soap and water.

It’s the act of scrubbing with soap, and not the soap itself, that rids your skin of germs.

Even more important is the fact that the active ingredient in most antibacterial products – triclosan – has recently come under significant scrutiny not only for health reasons, but because it may be damaging the environment.

Triclosan and its sibling triclocarban emerged as antibacterial and preservative agents in consumer products more than 30 years ago. Reportedly, antibacterial chemicals can now be found in almost 80 percent of all liquid soaps and almost 30 percent of bar soaps. Toothpaste, deodorants, dog shampoo, cutting boards, clothing, toys, and numerous plastic products commonly contain triclosan or triclocarban.

Our willingness to consider anything dubbed antibacterial as being somehow healthier has turned into a huge marketing opportunity. As a result, it’s almost impossible to find non-antibacterial liquid hand soap in grocery stores, not to mention in public restrooms. Whether it’s a gas station, restaurant, school or airport restroom, it’s rare to find an alternative to the industrial pink goop coming out of wall-mounted soap-dispensers.

The same notion that antibacterial products offer health protection has also led to the development of products outside of the personal care realm – antibacterial chopsticks, anyone? How about antibacterial bedroom sets (mattresses, sheets, pillows) impregnated with triclosan?

What’s the rub, you ask? Let’s start with the mounting concern that triclosan and triclocarban have serious health and environmental implications.

According to the website The Daily Green, “the ingredients in antibacterial soaps – triclosan or triclocarban – have some serious toxicity concerns. These chemicals pollute rivers and streams, are toxic to wildlife, can enter and accumulate in people’s bodies, and disrupt hormone systems (triclosan interferes with thyroid hormone, whereas triclocarban has a testosterone-like effect).”

The chemicals are purported to generate chloroform in certain conditions, and are turning up in wastewater, breast milk and fish.

Back in 2001, the Centers for Disease Control published an article voicing concern about antibacterial household products by Dr. Stuart B. Levy, Tufts University School of Medicine professor and director of the Center for Adaptation Genetics and Drug Resistance.

In his report, Levy states: “The recent entry of products containing antibacterial agents into healthy households has escalated from a few dozen products in the mid-1990s to more than 700 today. Antibacterial products were developed and have been successfully used to prevent transmission of disease-causing microorganisms among patients, particularly in hospitals. They are now being added to products used in healthy households, even though an added health benefit has not been demonstrated.”

Scientists are concerned, he added, about the potential for bacteria resistance, and effects on the immune system that could increase the chance of childhood allergies.

“No current data demonstrate any health benefits from having antibacterial-containing cleansers in a healthy household,” he wrote, adding that some researchers have even “found a correlation between too much hygiene and increased allergy.”

Some have further suggested that the use of antibacterial soaps may be contributing to the creation of antibiotic resistant “superbugs.”

Obviously, the human race survived long before the introduction of antibacterial soaps. But while sanitation and antibiotics certainly have their place – both have improved our life expectancy – it seems that our love affair with all things antibacterial may be doing harm.

Consider a new mantra – plain old soap and water is best. Wash your hands five times a day for 20 seconds – about the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” – and watch those germs wash down the drain along with the dirt and grime.

If you must use antibacterial soap, consider a product that does not contain triclosan, such as herbal-based CleanWell foaming soap.

For those times when hand-washing is simply not an option, a hand sanitizer will do, but there are a few things to consider here, as well. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are very effective, but can be dangerous if ingested and not the best option for unsupervised children. Most non-alcohol hand sanitizers contain the synthetic germicide Benzalkonium Chloride, another chemical being scrutinized for its ill health effects.

As an alternative, consider using an alcohol-based sanitizing wipe, many of which are now made from biodegradable materials, including those from the company EO. While you might consider the individually wrapped, single-use wipes to be wasteful, they’re an excellent alternative to adding more antibacterial chemicals into the waste stream.

As Dr. Levy puts it, “We exist in the bacterial world, not bacteria in ours. Unfortunately, we believe that we can rid ourselves of bacteria when, in fact, we cannot. Instead, we should ‘make peace’ with them.”

Peace.

Jessica Newens is founder of the Telluride-based Tomboy Soap Company.

(Photo by Brett Schreckengost)
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