Good Bacteria, Bad Bacteria: How to Wash Your Hands and Be Gentle on the Earth
When you walk into Bath and Body Works, what’s the first thing you notice? For me, after my nostrils have recovered from the onslaught of flowery fragrances, I’m bombarded with this word: antibacterial.
In our germ phobic society, cleaning products score big when they advertise their dominion over bacteria. Except, of course, until you know better.
I’m strongly opposed to the war on “germs,” particularly the industry’s greatest weapon: triclosan. You, too, will be armed and dangerous against bacterial resistance by the time you reach the comments section.
Photo by KatieW
How Soap Works
In the interest of full disclosure, I need to tell you I’m a science geek. Please don’t hold that against me. I often tell my children that washing your hands is a team sport: water, soap, and friction all play a role.
- Water has two unique properties: cohesion and adhesion. Cohesion, also called surface tension, means water sticks to itself. Imagine a water droplet that doesn’t fall apart. Adhesion means it sticks to other things. Think of that droplet balancing just so on your fingertip. Water naturally adheres to the dirt and germs on your hands and washes them away.
- Soap exploits both of water’s properties, enhancing its cleaning power. Most soap contains “surfactants“, a short word for “surface active agents” which break the cohesion of water molecules and reduce the surface tension of water. Soap becomes the connection between the bewildered water molecules and the oil on your hands, increasing the adhesive power. Now the water is more effective– the water, not the soap! – and can wash away not only standard issue dirt and germs but also oil and grease.
- Friction is a key element. Once soap and water have done their job, the hand-washer just needs to scrub to dislodge the particles of gunk from their hands and send everything on its merry way down the drain, carried by the adhesion of water and the surfactant of soap.
The bottom line? Washing with water and rubbing well are the most important players on the clean team. Soap is just a great assistant coach. Your real goal in washing your hands is to get the germs and dirt off your hands and down the drain.
What is Triclosan?
Nicole recently taught us to read ingredients and check the Skin Deep cosmetic safety database for safer personal care products. What about the simple act of washing our hands – and our children’s hands? You can start by memorizing this word: Triclosan.
Triclosan is the bacteria-killing chemical added to antibacterial soaps (triclocarbon for bar soaps). It causes problems because it won’t only kill the bad bacteria, but also any of the trillions of good bacteria inside your body. Even worse, it works not by pure force, but by coaxing bacteria not to reproduce.
Why is Triclosan Dangerous?
- It contributes to bacterial resistance, because bacteria who are naturally resistant to the chemical (just like some people don’t get certain diseases even though they’re exposed to them) survive, then reproduce, creating a bacterial population that looks like the dreaded “super bugs” on which antibiotics and antibacterial soaps won’t have any effect. See more on how antibiotic resistance works from a real scientist.
- It is a probable hormone disruptor .
- It stays on hands up to four hours after washing.
- It is not completely removed by wastewater treatment processes, so it ends up in both our lakes and drinking water. As a result, it is killing aquatic life and has been found in human breastmilk. It’s classified as a pesticide.
- Our grandmothers knew to let their little boys (girls too!) play in the dirt. Exposure to bacteria is good for you and helps your children’s systems build up fortifications against the really bad germs.
Remember this: We don’t need to kill our bacteria, but simply move them out of our houses.
Photo by dijitalella
What Can I Do About It?
Triclosan is almost always listed as an “active ingredient.” You’ll also find it in some sneaky places, like antiperspirant and toothpaste. Seek out the triclosan-free alternatives.
Just use soap.
Regular hand soap is becoming harder to find, but it’s still mainstream, as is plain old dish soap. Go totally green and use castile soap and water in a foaming soap dispenser for hand-washing. A few tablespoons of soap will do it.
Wash hands well and often.
Teach your kids to sing “Happy Birthday” or the ABCs twice through while scrubbing firmly under running water…with some soap.
Avoid products with microban too.
Rubber ducks, cutting boards, and steering wheels may all be casualties in the germ wars. Microban, a brand-name version of triclosan, makes solid items antibacterial. Just don’t buy them.
What Works Best: Antibacterial or Plain Old Soap?
- AMA (American Medical Association) recommended no antibacterial soap for household use back in 2002!
- FDA (Food and Drug Administration) is conducting research on the topic.
- CDC (Center for Disease Control) recommends plain soap and water for handwashing.
- EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) also recommends simple soap and “good old-fashioned scrubbing”.
- Many of the diseases we’re worried about when we scrub our hands are viral, and triclosan doesn’t touch them anyway.
- Triclosan needs two full minutes to work. Who washes their hands that long?
With all those letters of the alphabet weighing in on the topic, why haven’t you heard about the AMA’s and CDC’s recommendations on ABC, CBS, or CNN? It’s not good marketing. Plain old soap doesn’t have selling pizzazz.
I’ll be talking triclosan again in a few weeks at Kitchen Stewardship when I share the results of an experiment I did on antibacterial soap in college and what this photo contains:
Photo by Katie Kimball
If you’re interested in more and can’t wait, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) article on triclosan is the most comprehensive source, including recommendations to the EPA for banning triclosan.
Are you convinced? What are you going to have to commit to in order to get rid of triclosan in your house? What are your concerns?
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