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who’s afraid of the big bad germs?

Image credit: Prevention article about air freshener

Newsflash: Antibacterial soaps are bad, and public toilet seats are cleaner than your kitchen sponge!!
I’ll never forget the first time I heard that antibacterial soap might not be the wonder cleaning cure it’s touted to be. I was a freshman in college, and my new boyfriend was learning about the subject in his microbiology class. It occurs to me college freshmen must be the primary target group for changing beliefs and attitudes because I only vaguely remember feeling momentarily taken aback about the news, and then I quickly accepted it and moved on.

I often look back at that lesson and wonder why it’s still being learned today, fourteen years later. Antibacterial soaps still grace our shelves, even more than back then, although there is little if any research showing a positive link between reduced infection and use of antibacterial soap containing triclosan. In fact, there are worries of the opposite, that these antibacterial products could have negative effects on both humans and our environment. From the 2005 Wall Street Journal article I linked to above:

The [FDA] raised concerns about the environmental impact of some antibacterial cleansers, which may hurt some algae and fish and break down into a harmful contaminant. Another potential fear — which the FDA said was “controversial” — was that using too many antibacterial products may prevent people from being exposed to routine bacteria, weakening the development of their immune systems and leading to asthma and allergies.

There are a plethora of articles I could have linked to showing the same results (i.e. antibacterial soap is bad for you), but there are few if any sources on the other side apart from the manufacturers themselves. Mary Roach, author of Stiff, wrote a great article for the New York Times rejecting use of antibacterial products, which is how I came by the idea to post the image above. Air sanitizer?! I only wish it was a joke.

I’ll pause so I can discuss a particular distinction I’d like you to note: hand sanitizer is not the same as antibacterial soap! I realize I might be muddling the message with this caveat, but it’s an important differentiation. Hand sanitizer is alcohol-based, meaning it strips the outer layer of oil rather than killing good bateria; it is a useful product when you’re not near a water source and soap, but it is no substitute for regular hand-washing. When buying a product, you want to look for the ingredients triclosan or triclocarban; those are the bad guys to avoid.

In our household, we have gotten rid of antibacterial products not just at the sink but in the rest of our home too. We threw away bleach and brought back vinegar and baking soda. Recently the Economist came out with an article, “Microbes Maketh the Man,” espousing the importance of microbes for human beings and the dangers of antibiotics and antibacterial products. I highly recommend giving it a gander. So here’s a question:

If the science is on our side, why do I feel like such a rebel?
Perhaps the answer to that question is that it can take a long time for the news to sink in with the masses, particularly when manufacturers have tons of money and can advertise their damaging products without consequence (yea capitalism!). Plus in this case, the waters are muddied even further by the notion that antibacterial products ARE science. The two are entwined in a marriage of convenience in people’s minds, and poor little vinegar and baking soda can’t compete with the hype of 99.9% of germs killed on contact! and other such hysterical nonsense.Rather than viewing my choice as counterculture, I prefer to think that I am not breaking the rules…I am just following a different set of rules
While we’re on the subject of bacteria and hand-washing, have you heard that public restroom sinks can harbor more bacteria than the toilet seat, which can be cleaner than your kitchen sponge? The hardest part about traveling with kids has got to be keeping our hands clean. When you take an eight-hour car trip with a potty-trained toddler like we just did, frequent rest stops are in your future. Fact: Constant bathroom breaks mean contact with a kajillion germs. I’ve been known to report to friends that the greatest birth control by far is to take my two-year-old and four-year-old into a public bathroom stall together. Let’s not even discuss what has ensued with the tiny garbage can on the wall. No.

Anyway, as I was saying, it’s impossible to avoid germs at the public bathroom, and it is one place that I employ my alcohol-based sanitizer rather than using the sink. A previous caveat to that rule would have been I’d use the public bathroom sinks if they had automatic water faucets and soap dispensers, but I learned recently that rule is misguided. Due to faulty plumbing issues with automatic faucets, Johns Hopkins researchers discovered you’re better off using the manual ones!

Shall we begin again at square one?

Yours in disgusting facts,

Editor’s note: This post is part of Frugal Days, Sustainable WaysMonday Mania, and The Homestead Barn Hop