The Antibacterial Movement: Are We Destroying Our Immune Systems?

Here’s a confession for you: I HATE washing my hands. Don’t worry, I do it after I go to the bathroom, or when I’m cooking, but I’m just generally not an avid hand-washer. I don’t carry around hand sanitizer- I do have a small bottle of all-natural sanitizer from CleanWell, but it’s lasted me about 3 years. Places that I do wash my hands often (home, kitchen, office) I only use all-natural, preferably homemade or small-batch soaps that don’t contain weird ingredients. I don’t know what it is, but generic, chemical-laden hand soap and sanitizers just are NOT my thing!

Given this little quirk, when a friend suggested writing about hand-washing and antibacterial stuff, I jumped on the subject. Maybe there’s something behind my personal vendetta against germ killers? Turns out, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be…

The first thing I came across was this FDA page about Triclosan, the active ingredient in antibacterial hand soaps and sanitizers. The page states that “the agency does not have evidence that triclosan in antibacterial soaps and body washes provides any benefit over washing with regular soap and water.” Hmm. Okay, so the FDA says there’s not really a benefit. Interesting.

Then, there’s this troubling recent article that actually details the history of triclosan as an antimicrobial ingredient. The article references “recent animal studies of triclosan [that] have led scientists to worry that it could case hormone-related problems in humans including an increase the risk of infertility and early puberty”. Additionally, the article discusses the original draft of ingredients allowed in soaps and cleaners, which “stated that triclosan was ‘not generally recognized as safe and effective,’ because regulators could not find enough scientific research demonstrating its safety and effectiveness.The FDA published several drafts of the guidelines over the years, but the agency never finalized the results. So, companies have not had to remove triclosan from their products.” This is a little worrisome to me.

While the FDA is expected to begin definitive studies on triclosan any time now, they have already missed their target start date several timers, so…I’ll read it when I see it.

Next, I found this minutes report from an the 2000 American Medical Association Annual Meeting.  At this meeting, the AMA reccommended that “the use of common antimicrobials [triclosan being named as one in the previous paragraph]for which acquired resistance has been demonstrated in bacteria as ingredients in consumer products should be discontinued”. Clearly, nobody listened to the AMA, but here it is- they express their concern that we are creating different strands of microbes that will then be resistant to antibiotics.  Essentially, that antibacterials/microbials are causing more harm in the long run than they are good.

I don’t know about you, but the FDA and the AMA are pretty big sources to be actually speaking out against making something- usually, if they lean a certain way, it’s unfortunately towards a money-making product. Needless to say, these articles got my attention.

As I continued researching, I found some more interesting articles. This one, from Mother Earth News, discusses another popular antimicrobial agent, triclocarbon or TCC, which is also a pesticide- which, thanks to it’s prevalence in hand soaps, is now contaminating our water systems and, therefore, much of large-scale agriculture. The article also discusses how triclosan “known to promote the growth of resistant bacteria, including E. coli”. Okay, no. Gross.

The kicker, for me, is this study from 2006 of mice and rats- some kept in a dirty sewer, and some kept in a sterile laboratory. The study showed that “the wild mice and rats had as much as four times higher levels of immunoglobulins, yet weren’t sick, showing an immune system tuned to fight crucial germs, but not minor irritants…what happened in the lab rats is what likely occurs in humans: their immune systems have got it so cushy they overreact to smallest of problems.” Essentially, the study concluded that the mice and rats that were continually exposed to different microbes were able to fight off sicknesses when stimulated, while the lab-kept mice and rats got much more sick when stimulated, because their immune systems weren’t used to having to do any work.

So, where do we go from here? This recent ABC news article discusses the importance of germs, and how normal, “older cleansers such as soap and hot water, alcohol, chlorine bleach and hydrogen peroxide are sufficient for most purposes…strong antibacterial cleaners are needed only when someone in a household is seriously ill or has low immunity.” Furthermore, the article discusses the importance of bacterial exposure in children, citing an Italian study that concluded that “exposure to bacteria is essential for development of an infant’s immune system. He says a baby must be exposed to germs during its first year in order to develop antibodies needed to fight infection later in life”. So, germs are not just good, they are essential for preparing our children for their future health.

My Bottom Line: We use homemade soaps and cleaners, or soaps and cleaners that we know the ingredients of, whenever possible. Yes, I bring my own soap to my office. When in a public restroom, I opt to use my all-natural hand sanitizer rather than the generic anti-microbial soap offered from the dispenser. I’ve even been known to carry around a tiny tupperware container with a sliver of soap from home. Am I going to be a germaphobe mom? Probably not, because honestly, I’m not afraid of germs- I recognize their importance to our immune systems and want my children to be strong and healthy. I know that regular exposure to common germs, in addition to a diet that supports their bodies rather than breaking them down, is pivotal for my children’s health. If someone is very ill or immunocompromised, of course there are precautions to take. I’m just not convinced that they need to include triclosan or TCC…

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