By Contributing Editor Kristina Strain
“Antibacterial” is everywhere. It’s on our dish soap, and our hand soap, and our laundry detergent. It’s in dog dishes and shower curtains and even pajamas. From products that make a modicum of sense–like cleaning agents– to products that seem to make no sense at all– like the aforementioned pajamas– is “antibacterial” really better? What chemical is making these things magically antibacterial, and why are antibacterial products suddenly so common?
The truth is, I’m afraid, that we’re being collectively hoodwinked into believing that all bacteria are bad-with-a-capital-B. I’ve seen the commercials for antibacterial products. I’m sure you’ve seen them too. There’s a perfectly groomed housewife in a seemingly spic-and-span kitchen, but zoom in on the countertop and –EEK!– it’s crawling with microscopic lifeforms. Scary music ensues, then the antibacterial product-of-the-day is whisked it to banish the bad bugs. In commercials like these, we’re convinced that in order to be truly “clean,” we need to be free of any and all bacteria and so-called “germs.” It is complete and utter hogwash.
The truth is, many bacteria are harmless or even beneficial. Chemical companies who make this stuff spend a lot of time and money convincing us otherwise, resorting to fear-mongering to drive home their message. These ads make us afraid of our kitchen counters, our bathrooms even our own skin for fear of what unseen organisms might be lurking there. The fear creates demand, which creates profit for the companies. So, there’s a lot of money to be made in fanning the flame of mass germ hysteria. There’s also a lot of waste associated with this harebrained scheme. The antibacterial products are harmful (as you’ll read later), the containers they’re sold in are often not recyclable, the companies that make them pollute the environment… and all for a product we don’t even NEED at all! Tune in to a more common sense approach with this simple excercise:
Look down, right now, where you’re sitting. Look at your hand there on the mouse. Right now, your healthy skin is inhabited by dozens upon dozens of species of bacteria. (Source.) Don’t panic. This is all perfectly natural, normal, and healthy. “We have to recognize that we are an aggregation, a mixture, of both human cells and microorganisms — bacteria that live on our bodies and coexist with us,” says Julia A. Segre, PhD, a study leader at the National Human Genome Research Institute.
As this table shows, there are many, many species of micro-organisms commonly inhabiting healthy human skin. While some of these guys may be considered bad– some might be cold germs, for example– the greatest percentage of common human skin bacteria are benign (Source: Wikipedia). What’s more, these bacteria can even mount an offensive when a potentially pathogenic germ shows up. In short, the bacteria living on your skin prevent more illnesses than they cause. Washing with antibacterial soap, you kill the good bugs along with the bad bugs, like an atomic bomb dropped on a city. Ironically, wiping out the bacteria may leave you more susceptible to the illness you were so hoping to prevent. How’s that for a paradox?
Beyond the common-sense points outlined above, there are some strong health and environmental reasons to avoid antibacterial products. Their main active ingredient, Triclosan, is currently under investigation by the FDA, to size up its health risks and determine whether it’s even effective at all. To date, the only situation where Triclosan has been proven to have a putative human health benefit is in Colgate Total toothpaste, as an anti-gingivitis agent (Source: Wikipedia). In every other application, Triclosan’s effectiveness is undetermined. Meanwhile, we consumers contend with the health and environmental risks.
The first red flag is the chemical’s composition. Triclosan is a polychloro phenoxy phenol. It contains chlorine, therefore– if you read last week’s piece about oven cleaning, you know this already– and chlorine can be dangerous stuff for human beings and the environment. Triclosan is no exception. When mixed with tap water, triclosan degrades into a number of nasty carcinogens, including chloroform and various dioxins (Source). Triclosan has also been shown to be an endocrine disruptor, scrambling hormone production and reception in animals, including bullfrogs, rats, and human beings. This is especially concerning, because triclosan has been found in human breast milk as well.
In the environment, Triclosan is toxic to aquatic bacteria– and that’s worrisome, because so much Triclosan ends up in our wastewater– and even inhibits photosynthesis by killing diatom algae. It’s diatom algae like these– not the rainforests– which are responsible for the lion’s share of the Earth’s photosynthesis. Additionally, widespread use of such a broad-spectrum pesticide like Triclosan can breed resistant strains of bacteria. These “superbugs” can be super scary, especially when pathogenic, because commonly used antibacterial agents won’t keep them in check. The more frequently a bacterial population gets exposed to a chemical, the more chance it has to develop immunity. This phenomenon has made national news lately, with antibiotic-resistant strains of E coli.-showing up in hospitals. The drugs historically used to control E. coli are proving less and less effective as the bacteria develop resistance over time. Overuse of triclosan can take away our best defense against truly scary, potentially life-threatening germs.
Alternatives to Antibacterials
Fortunately for us all, there are many safe, natural alternatives to antibacterial products.
Wash Your Hands. The type of soap you use– be it bar, liquid, or antibacterial–matters way less than your actual method of hand-washing. Skip the triclosan-laced options, and stick with what’s tried and true: hot water, a thick lather of suds, and vigorous rubbing for twenty seconds.
Choose a Nontoxic Cleaner. Shop our store for a wide selection of safe, earth-friendly cleaning products.
Disinfect the Natural Way. Replace your garden-variety “disinfectant” spray with a bottle of white vinegar and a bottle of hydrogen peroxide under the sink. In addition to being cheap, green, and perfectly safe for your health, a spray of vinegar followed up with hydrogen peroxide will kill as many germs as a squirt of Lysol. Using hot water for dishwashing– especially for those items that came into contact with raw meat or eggs– is also key. Get the water to at least 171 degrees F for maximum germ killing potential.
Disinfect Rags and Sponges. A zap in the microwave is all it takes– one minute for sponges, three for rags. Frequent washing in hot water is also good practice.
The best solution to the problem of antibacterial overuse is to practice thinking about your home, and your body, not as the frontlines for germ warfare, but as an ecosystem. Many bacteria are safe, natural, and even beneficial to us and our busy lives. Using a broad-spectrum antibacterial agent like triclosan is a poor choice for our environment, our homes, and our health.