Are Antibacterial Soaps Anti-Life?

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by Amy Mathews Amos

When my sister and I were kids, we giggled upon learning that 60 percent of the human body is comprised of water. We wiggled and wobbled and moved our bodies in mushy wave-like motions, mimicking the sloshy mess one would expect of something made largely of liquid.

It turns out we should have been pretending we were covered in bugs.

Scientific studies now reveal that nine out of 10 cells in our bodies are not actually us, they’re microbes. Yes, we’re crawling with microscopic creatures, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi.

And in fact, the overwhelming majority of these creatures are not bad, but good. These puny partners, having evolved with us for eons, aren’t just hitching a ride. They’re earning their keep with hefty tasks – helping digest food, absorb nutrients, and attacking disease-causing invaders.

So if they’re good, and we need them, then why are we working so hard to kill them? And by harming them, are we also unknowingly harming ourselves?

Sales of antibacterial consumer products – including multiple brands of antibacterial hand soap, body soap, dishwashing liquid, sponges and more – have mushroomed recently, fed by our growing fears of germs and nasty “superbugs” that no longer respond to antibiotics. Up to 75 percent of hand soap now sold in the U.S. is antibacterial.

I even bought antibacterial cotton swabs recently by mistake, not noticing the antimicrobial claim until I got home. Which begs the question: do I really need to worry about microbes in healthy ears?

In truth, most of these products aren’t needed. Washing hands with regular soap and warm water removes harmful germs just as effectively as antibacterial soap, says the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Soap binds with bacteria, picks them up off the skin, and allows them to be whisked away with warm water. People with compromised immune systems from chronic disease or chemotherapy may want added protection, but most of us don’t need it.

In fact, antimicrobial products may be bad for you. Most antibacterial items are treated with a pesticide called triclosan. Studies suggest that triclosan disrupts thyroid and sex hormones in animals. It also gets washed down drains into waterways, where sunlight converts it into a poisonous dioxin that hurts fish and wildlife.

Also, remember that triclosan kills all bacteria, which means it can kill those good bugs on your body that help prevent disease by keeping harmful bacteria, viruses and fungi in check. Some scientists worry that excessive use of antibacterial soap could actually make infectious bacteria worse by accelerating their resistance to antibiotics.

But it’s not just about infection. Many scientists believe good microbes play a critical role in regulating our metabolism, guiding brain development, influencing behavior and regulating health. For example, microbes in the gut have been shown to alter brain chemistry in mice, affecting anxiety and depression, and they may influence inflammatory responses that contribute to cancer and heart disease.

The National Institute of Health is currently examining the trillions of microbes found in the human mouth, nose, esophagus, gut, skin and urogenital tract to identify which are found in healthy people, and which are missing in those who aren’t. Related research is exploring whether microbes can help treat chronic digestive and autoimmune disorders such as Crohn’s disease and multiple sclerosis.

Scientists are also studying whether modern medical practices such as C-sections (in which newborns bypass healthy bacteria in the birth canal), and excessive antibiotic use are contributing to escalating health problems such as asthma, food allergies, and obesity.

So save your creepy crawly fears for Halloween. Most of those trillions of tiny creatures on your body help maintain a very complicated and miraculous system: you. Wash the truly scary bugs away with simple soap and water and ignore the marketers trying to trick you into buying something you don’t need.

Your microbes, and the remaining 10 percent of human cells in your body, just may thank you.

Amy Mathews Amos is an independent environmental consultant and writer. © www.blueridgepress.com 2012.


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