Antibacterial products, such as soaps and hand sanitizers, have become part of a daily practice for many, especially during the winter months when indoor air is recycled and germs are most at large. However, there are a few concerns when it comes to chemical sanitizers that are worth considering, as well as some effective natural alternatives that will keep your family and the ecosystem clean and green.
The skinny on bacteria and antibacterial products
The reality is that there are no more germs today than there were, say, 20 years ago, but it seems we have become more paranoid about them now. With a staggering 700+ antibacterial products on the market, one would suspect that we could sterilize bacteria from existence. While it’s true that there are incalculable amounts of bacteria everywhere, chemical antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizers may not always be the answer for confronting them for a few good reasons.
1. Not all bacteria are bad.
A lot of bacteria are benign and some are truly helpful. For instance, the bacteria in out guts are absolutely essential for digesting and absorbing food, and they are an important part of our immune system. Antibacterial soaps kill bacteria indifferently, wiping out the good and the bad with broad strokes.
2. Overusing antibacterial cleansers may weaken our immune system.
Bacteria and germs are everywhere in every season, but they typically have a tough time infiltrating our bodies because we have many levels of natural defense. We are designed to fight off mild bacteria and germs. Your body is quietly, heroically doing it right now. However, the immune system gets lazy and weak when all the day-to-day defense work is done for it. This becomes a bigger issue when really nasty stuff comes along. A strong immune system is one that’s in fighting form.
3. Casual, regular use of antibacterial products promotes the growth of resistant strains of bacteria and germs.
This spells trouble for antibiotics in the big picture. Over time, our most effective antibiotics may be rendered useless. We need antibiotics and antibacterials for the really nasty bacteria and pathogens like Staphylococcus and E. coli, but not for common bacteria and germs that mill around in the bathroom.
4. Research is linking too stringent hygiene with an increase in allergies.
Research shows that this is especially true in kids, and there notable increases in asthma and eczema to boot.
Two Effective Words: Soap and Water
The largest study done on hand hygiene shows that nothing works better to get rid of disease-causing bacteria and viruses than good ol’ soap and water, period. The best way to protect yourself from everyday germs is to wash your hands several times a day. It’s as simple as that.
Triclosan: The Antibacterial with Hazardous Side Effects
Triclosan is one of the most common ingredients found in synthetic antibacterial products. It’s a broad-spectrum biocide that kills everything in its path, but its hazards to human health and the environment are not trivial. Triclosan is a type of phenol that, though it has antiseptic properties, is a chemical pollutant that persists in the environment for a very long time and bioaccumulates in humans and animals. It’s acutely toxic to aquatic life and causes serious havoc in water ecosystems. One of the big concerns with triclosan is that it’s highly reactive with compounds like chlorine, both in the environment at large and possibly at home when mixed with chlorine-based cleaners. The interaction creates carcinogenic compounds like chlorinated dioxins and chloroform. This is not a good picture to be in. Choosing nontoxic, biodegradable products that use the naturally antiseptic powers of plants and essential oils instead of products containing triclosan is clearly the clean, green way to go.
Essential oils: Naturally Antiseptic and Good Smells Too
For eons, essential oils derived from plants have been valued for their medicinal and therapeutic properties. Modern science has verified the value of many traditional oils, especially for their antiseptic, antibacterial, antimocrobial, and antiviral qualities. The most notable essential oils in this regard are cinnamon, clove, lavender, lemon, lemongrass, orange, oregano, rosemary, thyme, and tea tree.
Add a dozen drops of essential oils to your favorite (plant-based, biodegradable) liquid hand soap and shake it up for a fine way to improve the natural antibacterial action of good ol’ soap and water. Mix and match fragrances for a bouquet of aroma with healthy hygiene. Pure essential oils are available at most natural markets and from online sources. They aren’t cheap, but one bottle can easily last a year.
- Renée Loux is an author, eco-consultant, TV personality, chef, restaurateur, and columnist for Women’s Health Magazine. She is a contributing author and the face The Whole Green Catalog (Rodale 2009), authored the definitive guide to green lifestyle, Easy Green Living (Rodale 2008), and Gourmand Award-winning The Balanced Plate (Rodale 2006), and Living Cuisine (Penguin-Avery 2004). She also hosts Fine Living channel’s It’s Easy Being Green.