26 June 2008

the dirt on cleanliness

I'm not a germaphobe, but I know plenty of people who are. And producers of antibacterial soaps and chlorine bleach like to perpetuate the fears that these people have about dirtiness. Unfortunately, the chemicals that make these products "effective" can be harmful to your health.

Take triclosan, for example. This compound has been added to a lot of products in the last few years, from dish soap to toothpaste (treehugger has a good list here). Triclosan is not only a suspected carcinogen, it also can lead to antibacterial resistance. Just like with some antibiotics, antibacterials like triclosan and triclocarban work in a specific way to kill off bacteria. Over time, the bacteria mutate and become immune to the compounds. This has been demonstrated in a study examining triclosan's effect on bacteria such as resistant E coli.

Some believe that a slightly dirty home environment is better for one's immune system than a super clean home. There have even been studies linking overly hygienic environments to the development of allergies. And one study in rats helps support this "hygiene hypothesis."

So what does one do to stay clean in an unclean world?
Good old soap and water is just as effective as antibacterials.

Here are some recommendations:

If your on the go and in a pinch and need a hand sanitizer, try one of these health-friendly options:
Side note: I wrongly badmouthed Purell while in Yellowstone (it was in all of the latrines) thinking it contained triclosan, but its active ingredient is ethyl alcohol (which doesn't have the baggage of triclosan, though I can't speak for its other ingredients).