If you’re shelling out cash for antibacterial soap in every room with a sink …
You might be wasting your money.
I know, I know. You hear all day and night that germs are the enemy and must be destroyed as quickly as possible.
But not so fast.
As you will read below, we need to be exposed to germs to develop a healthy, well-regulated immune system.
In fact, repeated use of antibacterial products may actually be HURTING us.
Exposure to germs allows the immune system to develop and fine-tune its system to differentiate between irritants that are harmful and irritants that are helpful.
When you deprive the system of the opportunity to learn which germs can help and which can hurt, the body becomes hypersensitive to any irritant that comes its way.
This is a fascinating area of research that explores what scientist call the “hygiene hypothesis.” That is, an ultraclean environment in childhood (with its decreased exposure to germs) may be the reason we’re seeing a rise in autoimmune and allergic diseases.
Indeed, several population studies suggest that exposure to infectious agents early in life has a protective effect. For example, researchers report that having one or more older siblings protects children against developing hay fever and asthma, multiple sclerosis and type 1 diabetes.
Attending day care during the first 6 months of life protects a child against atopic dermatitis and asthma.
Even exposure to farming and farm animals early in life prevents allergies, especially if mom is exposed during pregnancy.1
Beware of Triclosan
It’s strange, but even as the scientific debate continues about the downside of uber-sterile living, we continue to go to great lengths to avoid exposure to bacteria. This includes reaching for consumer products that contain an antibacterial agent called triclosan. It’s in a host of consumer products from soaps to toothpastes, laundry detergents, deodorants … even facial tissues. And we’re using it with abandon.
Trouble is, triclosan appears to have a serious dark side, starting with derailing our immune function.
Researchers from the University of Michigan and their colleagues recently analyzed data from a large U.S. national survey of over 3,700 people. The database included measurements of the amount of triclosan found in urine.2
Here’s what they found: Among respondents under the age of 18, those with higher urinary levels of triclosan were significantly more likely to be diagnosed with hay fever or allergies.
And it’s not just the potential for allergies that has me wringing my (possibly unclean) hands.
The Food and Drug Administration is concerned that triclosan may have hormonal effects that disrupt our endocrine system.
Animal studies indicate that triclosan may alter the way hormones work in the body. While data showing effects in animals don’t always predict effects in humans, the FDA has expressed concern and ordered further investigation on the ingredient.
In addition, the use of antibacterial and antimicrobial cleaning products – combined with the over-prescription of antibiotics – may produce strains of bacteria that are resistant to disinfectants and antibiotics.
This can have a significant impact on the effectiveness of medical treatments. Imagine if antibiotics just stopped working? It would be disastrous.
Bacteria can be beneficial
The bottom line is that most bacteria are totally benign, and some are actually GOOD for us. Good bacteria in the gut help us digest food. Good bacteria on our skin keep it moist and supple. Good bacteria live throughout the body and help keep the number of bad bacteria under control.
When you use antibacterial soap to kill the bad bacteria, the good bacteria go too. You’re throwing the baby out with the bath water, so to speak.
This could be harmful if the ratio of good to bad bacteria is disturbed, giving bad bacteria the upper hand.
Just how does shifting this microbial balance, disrupting this delicate ecosystem of bacteria in our body, contribute to disease? Scientists have yet to uncover the precise mechanisms of action. However, preliminary findings link alterations in gut bacteria, for example, to obesity, diabetes, colon cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, among others.3,4
This is an active (and well-funded) area of research that could soon explain why all-out germ warfare isn’t the best approach.
So, what’s the answer?
Good old-fashioned soap and water. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the best way to wash your hands is:
- Wet your hands with clean water and apply soap.
- Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap.
- Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. (That’s about the length of the “Happy Birthday” song sung twice.)
- Rinse your hands well.
- Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.
If soap and water aren’t handy, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
Steven Sisskind, M.D.
1. Okada H, Kuhn C, Feillet H, Bach JF. The ‘hygiene hypothesis’ for autoimmune and allergic diseases: an update. Clin Exp Immunol. 2010;160(1):1-9. PMID: 20415844.
2. Clayton EM, Todd M, Dowd JB, Aiello AE. The impact of bisphenol A and triclosan on immune parameters in the U.S. population, NHANES 2003-2006. Environ Health Perspect. 2011;119(3):390-396. PMID: 21062687.
3. Young VB. The intestinal microbiota in health and disease. Curr Opin Gastroenterol. 2012;28(1):63-69. PMID: 22080827.
4. Hill JM, Bhattacharjee S, Pogue AI, Lukiw WJ. The gastrointestinal tract microbiome and potential link to Alzheimer’s disease. Front Neurol. 2014;5:43. eCollection PMID: 24772103.