Germs are bad. And they should be feared. At least that’s how watching a recent TV ad for Lysol antibacterial cleaner made me feel – evil, creeping germs crawling everywhere. The truth, however, is our health may not require an all-out offensive against germs.
Consider antimicrobial soaps. Their name alone sends two implicit messages. One, they help prevent the spread of microbes – microscopic bacteria, fungi, protozoa or viruses – thus protecting us from illness. Two, they do this better than ordinary soap.
Well, if they are not overwhelmingly effective, at least antimicrobial soaps should be safe, right? Consider these concerns.
Killing good germs
We owe a lot to healthy bacteria that live in and on us. If you’ve read a previous post about probiotics, or have contemplated the hygiene hypothesis, you may get the live in part. Much the same goes for bacteria that live on us.2 So we may not want to cavalierly kill these bugs.
This might be easier to remember if not for the word “germs.” Little better than the word “cooties,” it just rings icky in the ears of most. But don’t let the emotional pull of a word override your brain. Remember, not all bacteria are bad.
Creating resistant superbugs or MRSA (pronounce “mur-sa”)
Bacterial resistance. It’s why we’ve learned not to take antibiotics, unless we absolutely need them (We have learned this, haven’t we?). And then when we do need them, to take every last antibiotic pill. It’s also at the root of stories about contaminated produce, whether spinach or sprouts, making people sick more often.
The truth is, it’s almost impossible to kill all bacteria – ever. Even in concentrated areas using the best antimicrobials/antibiotics. Many die. Some don’t. Microbes reproduce and pass on survival traits. In the crucible of continued antimicrobial exposure, these traits become finely honed. One might think that the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was actually channeling a bacterium when he wrote, “that which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
Causing unintended consequences
Considering past experience (think agent orange or DDT), as a society we should know to be more vigilant regarding long-term safety issues of such novel compounds. Questions of effectiveness aside, if something persists and accumulates in our bodies and environment, we need to be extremely careful with it. This is not a concern for all antibacterials, but for many it is.
The antimicrobial triclosan is often found in hand soaps, but also cosmetics, cleansers, toothpastes, deodorants, kitchenware and children’s toys.3 Granted, it has been used successfully in clinical settings to control MRSA outbreaks (those deadly infections that have become so prevalent in hospital settings nowadays).4 But for everyday preventive use there is little evidence of its benefit. Direct resistance may not be a significant concern, but cross-resistance with other antimicrobials/antibiotics may be.5 Triclosan is fat-soluble, tending to accumulate in human tissue where it may be an endocrine disruptor. It also accumulates and persists in the environment and degrades into a type of dioxin when exposed to sunlight or to water treatment.6
What you can do
This is something that should concern you. Here are some steps you can take:
In HealthThink on WellWise.org, I ruminate on all thoughts health especially as they intersect with dietary supplements. How do we really think about health [when we’re healthy]? And what does our behavior belie about how we think about health? Aside from the general rule that applies to the entire blogosphere – never believe what you read in a blog – here are two tenets for this blog: 1) spending your good time reading entitles you to comment/complain about HealthThink and 2) if you complain/comment do not be surprised to see your ideas or words appear in said blog. If you complain/comment using words in the spirit of this wordsmithing hit, you’ll get extra credit. A blog with rules and extra credit: fantastic.