Germ theory changed everything about health – and was it all for the best? Until the 1840s, hand washing wasn’t a common practice. Not until, at least, physician Ignaz Semmelweis (1) discovered that this simple act could drastically reduce various infections that were later determined to be the primary cause of maternal death after childbirth.
Dr. Semmelweis, the Director of the Maternity Clinic at the Vienna General Hospital (2) in Austria, became suspicious of the all-to-common practice that surgeons had in the 19th century of not scrubbing up (i.e. not disinfecting their hands or changing their clothes) before operating on patients.
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Americans Going Overboard With Germs
Even though germs are good, because dissecting corpses was an important component of medicine in the 1800s, doctors and medical students routinely went from dissection to live patient examination and surgery without ever thinking to scrub up! After investigating the situation, Dr. Semmelweis came up with the theory that the cause of the maternal death syndrome plaguing his community was some sort of pathogen that could be stopped if doctors would wash their hands. What a novel idea, huh! Well, as it turns out, Semmelweis was 100% correct. Deaths drastically reduced and he became known as the “Father of Sanitation!”
“Cleanliness, then, should be understood not as a natural progression from a prehygienic age to an era of cleanliness based on scientific rationale, but in terms of a psychological process caused by the phenomenon of consumption.”
Juliann Sivulka – Stronger Than Dirt: A Cultural History of Advertising Personal Hygiene in America (1875 – 1940)
We have much to thank Semmelweis for because of his discovery; proper hand washing is arguably the #1 activity that we can do to prevent infectious disease, and his groundbreaking research helped pave the way for basic sanitation standards all over the globe. Yet, staying clean and being sanitary is one thing. Living life as a “germermaphobe,” obsessed with always being in a perfectly antiseptic environment is quite another! Truth is, germs are good and we need to have a healthy balance.
Just think about it, Americans are completely preoccupied with germs. It seems like wherever we turn there’s a big bottle of hand sanitizer or antibacterial soap staring us in the face! Have you noticed this as well? It has recently dawned on me that it has become all too “normal” to see kids with little bottles of scented hand sanitizer clipped onto their lunch boxes, and baby strollers armed with antibacterial lotion. These products are everywhere!
And what’s the problem with this? Because they kill ALL the bacteria on your hands; including the probiotic “good” bacteria that your skin and immune system need to stay healthy. In fact, studies have shown that all these antibacterial products actually weaken our immune systems and are contributing to strains of antibacterial resistant bacteria from developing!
Being Too “Clean” is Bad For You
There are 3 main reasons antibacterial products and over sanitation are bad for us.
1. Wide-Spectrum – The main problem with over sanitation is that antibacterial products are nonspecific; meaning they kill every type of microorganism, rather than singling out a particular strand or variety.
2. Super Bugs – Also, unlike normal soap, they usually leave behind a surface residue after use, which creates conditions that could foster “Super Bugs.” As explained by microbiologist Stuart Levy of Tufts University School of Medicine (3), it works like this.
- When an antibacterial product is used, it places the bacterial population into a “stressed” situation.
- Because of the evolutionary advantage to adapt to their surroundings, some bacteria strains with special defense mechanisms will survive this initial “attack” from the antibacterial cleaner and then grow stronger and reproduce as weaker lines die off.
- Essentially, as this tolerance develops, more and more product is needed to kill off the microbes until they become completely invincible.
3. Triclosan – The other primary danger of over sanitation is that most (75% in fact) contain a dangerous chemical named triclosan. Even the FDA has issued a proposed ruling that requires companies making antibacterial cleaners to prove that their products are not only safe, but also more effective than good ol’ fashioned soap and water. “We want companies to actually test these products so that consumers that purchase them have a sense whether there really is any benefit at all over plain soap and water,” said Sandra Kweder, FDA Deputy Director of the Office of New Drugs.
According to Kweder, research supports that triclosan has only been shown to be effective as an anti-gingivitis ingredient in toothpaste, which makes me wonder why the FDA even allowed it to be an ingredient in antibacterial products in the first place! If this isn’t enough of a red flag to make us doubt triclosan’s safety, did you know that it was first registered by the EPA in 1969 as a pesticide? Remarkably, it’s still registered as a pesticide today, yet finds its way in most of our personal care products and even for industrial uses:
- Caulking compounds
- Conveyor belts
- Dye bath vats
- Fabrics and textiles (clothing, footwear)
- Fire hoses
- Floor wax emulsions
- Ice-making equipment (as an antimicrobial pesticide)
- Plastics (toys, toothbrushes)
- Polyethylene, polyurethane, polypropylene
- Sealants and rubber
In fact, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (4), triclosan weakens the ability of heart and skeletal muscles to contract, which can lead to serious health concerns. According to Isaac Pessah, PhD, one of the authors of the study, “Triclosan is found in virtually everyone’s home and is pervasive in the environment. These findings provide strong evidence that the chemical is of concern to both human and environmental health.”
If this weren’t bad enough, triclosan has been found to disrupt hormone balance. A Canadian study published in 2006 uncovered that it actually “disrupts thyroid hormone-associated gene expression and can alter the rate of thyroid hormone” that is released by the thyroid gland. And don’t be fooled that topical applications aren’t harmful. Studies have shown that triclosan penetrates the skin easier than previously thought and can enter the blood stream without much resistance, which explains why it has been detected in human breast milk studies.
Why DIY Instead of Using Antibacterial Products
Just recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (5) (FDA) finally issued a ruling that officially bans the use of triclocarban, triclosan, and 17 other dangerous chemicals in hand and body washes. These products have been marketed as being which being more effective than good ol’ fashioned soap and water and consumers have been mislead to purchasing them!
“Consumers may think antibacterial washes are more effective at preventing the spread of germs, but we have no scientific evidence that they are any better than plain soap and water,” Janet Woodcock, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER) said. “In fact, some data suggests that antibacterial ingredients may do more harm than good over the long-term.” Antibacterial product manufacturers have until 2017 to comply with the new law by removing all products from the market or that violate this ruling or remove antibacterial active ingredients. But this still isn’t enough to keep us safe.
Triclosan is still in countless other products like deodorants, antiperspirants, body spray and toothpastes. Simply put: antibacterial products kill ALL the bacteria on your hands; including the GOOD bacteria you need for healthy skin and a properly functioning immune system. In fact, they have been shown to weaken your immune system!
So Why Is Bacteria Good for You?
So what do we do? One on the one hand, we don’t want to get back to the dangerous conditions that Semmelweis lived in. Yet, on the other, we don’t want to be germaphobes applying dangerous chemicals on our skin and the skin of our children to ward off microorganisms. Not to gross you out, but most of the cells in your body are actually bacterial cells and we are created to live in harmony with them. In fact, the bacterial cells in your human body actually outnumber your human cells 10 to 1!
In scientific terms, this phenomenon is called the “human microbiome” and the NIH Human Microbiome Project (6) invested over $20 million to determine just how necessary these bacteria are to human life. After evaluating over 240 healthy U.S. volunteers, researchers discovered that more than 10,000 microbial species occupy the human ecosystem and 81% – 99% are seen in healthy adults. Here are some other key findings from their research:
- Microbes contribute more genes than humans contribute for human survival.
- Human genome carries approximately 22,000 protein-coding genes.
- The human microbiome contributes upwards to 8 million unique protein-coding genes (360 times more bacterial genes than human genes).
Why is bacteria good for you? The bottom line is that this bacterial genomic contribution is critical for human survival, and genes carried by bacteria in the gastro-intestinal tract, for example, allow humans to digest foods and absorb nutrients that otherwise would be unavailable.
To Germ or Not to Germ, That is the Question
At the end of the day, David Hill, Director of Global Public Health at Quinnipiac University Medical School (7), sums it up quite nicely. “Simple hand washing with soap and water still remains one of the most effective ways to decrease the risk of spreading infections after preparing food, using the toilet, or after coughing or blowing your nose,”
- Weise E.. FDA: Antibacterial soaps could pose health risks. Internet. Available at: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/12/16/fda-antibacterial-soap/4038907/
- Stromberg J. Triclosan, A Chemical Used in Antibacterial Soaps, is Found to Impair Muscle Function. Internet. Available at: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/triclosan-a-chemical-used-in-antibacterial-soaps-is-found-to-impair-muscle-function-22127536/?no-ist
- Cherednichenko G, et al. Triclosan impairs excitation-contraction coupling and Ca2+ dynamics in striated muscle. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Aug 28;109(35):14158-63.
- Adolfsson-Erici M, et al. Triclosan, a commonly used bactericide found in human milk and in the aquatic environment in Sweden. 2002 Mar;46(9-10):1485-9.
- Moss T, et al. Percutaneous penetration and dermal metabolism of triclosan (2,4, 4′-trichloro-2′-hydroxydiphenyl ether). Food Chem Toxicol. 2000 Apr;38(4):361-70.
- Veldhoen N, et al. The bactericidal agent triclosan modulates thyroid hormone-associated gene expression and disrupts postembryonic anuran development. Aquat Toxicol. 2006 Dec 1;80(3):217-27.
- Ackerman J. How Bacteria in Our Bodies Protect Our Health. Internet. Available at: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ultimate-social-network-bacteria-protects-health/.
- NIH Human Microbiome Project defines normal bacterial makeup of the body. Internet. Available at: http://www.nih.gov/news/health/jun2012/nhgri-13.htm