Chemical
Make friends with microbes: Avoid unnecessary antibacterials

Make friends with microbes: Avoid unnecessary antibacterials

January 16, 2013

Manufacturers of antibacterial products prey on parents’ fears and they’ve been remarkably successful. A substantial 76 percent of all liquid soaps and 29 percent of bar soaps now contain bacteria-killing chemicals, such as triclosan, which is linked to impaired thyroid function and liver toxicity among other things. Antibacterial agents have also been added to lotions, cutting boards, toys, toothbrushes, toothpastes, even socks and underwear. 

Surprisingly, many of the 5,000 EPA-registered antibacterial products sold don’t actually kill infectious bacteria – the invader that everyone’s so afraid of. Often, these products restrain growth of algae, odor-causing bacteria, bacteria which cause spoilage or deterioration, and microorganisms infectious only to animals.

Living With Microbes 

In truth, most of the microbes on and around us are harmless and many are even beneficial. Bacteria naturally inhabit our skin, digestive tract, the soil, and our homes, helping to maintain a balance in both our internal and external environments.

There’s even mounting evidence that exposure to bacteria might be a good thing. According to the “hygiene hypothesis,” bacterial assaults help children’s immune systems to develop. Studies have shown that inner city children, and children without older siblings, are more likely to develop allergies, asthma and autoimmune disorders because their immune systems are less regularly stimulated.

In any case, for the average home, antibacterial and disinfecting products are chemical overkill. Most of the time, soap and water are all that’s needed to get rid of germs. Besides, disinfectants will protect your family only temporarily, because it doesn’t take long for germs to return.

Handing It to Germs

While keeping a clean house will help prevent the spread of infectious disease, changing our behavior is more likely to reduce our chances of getting sick. Most germs find their way into the body via the hands. Touching our eyes or mouth with our hands, which we do frequently and often unconsciously, enables germs to enter our bodies. Children are especially vulnerable, because they have few qualms about sucking on dirty fingers. 

Ironically, this behavior, which drives so many parents toward antibacterial products, also exposes children to chemicals whose long-term health risks are unclear. Antibacterial products can leave a lingering residue on skin and home surfaces.

The best defense against infection, according to most experts, is simple hand-washing with plain soap and water. The physical act of washing removes all kinds of microorganisms, including the viruses that cause colds and the flu, which aren’t even destroyed by antibacterial agents. Scrubbing with any type of soap helps loosen germs and dirt, which then are washed down the drain with a good rinsing.