Backing off the Antibacterials
The term “antibacterial” has become synonymous with the 21st century. Anti-bacterial products are, in theory, supposed to help prevent the spread of harmful bacteria. As a child of the 80s, I remember being told that it was good to go out and get dirty. By exposing yourself to certain microbes in the environment, your body is able to essentially develop natural defenses against them.
The past decade, however, has changed the way we see germs – and more importantly, how we try to fight them. Remember the SARS epidemic, where people who were exposed to the virus had to be quarantined in their own homes? As a result of this and other similar mass outbreaks of one form or another, antibacterial soap and hand cleansers have entered the mainstream consciousness and show no signs of slowing down. Kids today seem to be getting increasingly bubble-wrapped. So what’s the real deal with all the antibacterial options out there? Let’s see if I can simplify it for you.
Alcohol-based Hand Sanitizers
Most hand sanitizers claim to kill 99.9% of all surface bacteria when used properly. They’ve become commonplace in hospital entrances, school hallways, building foyers and the like. Travel-size bottles of hand sanitizers have now made their way to the top of most travelers’ packing lists. And let’s face it – with the threat of so many different kinds of infections at home and abroad, who can blame people from jumping on the Purell bandwagon? If their presence is so abundant, there must be weight behind their claims, right? But a simple Internet search turned up article after article debunking such claims.
The most prominent argument against their use is that Triclosan, the main ingredient in many of these hand sanitizers, can result in an increase in antibacterial resistance if used too often over a long period of time. Long-term use has implications of increased health risks such as respiratory illness and asthma somewhat counterintuitive when you think that they’re supposed to be doing something positive. Triclosan also scores highly on the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of toxins that pose both a human and environmental health risk. And according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there’s insufficient evidence that adding Triclosan to soaps and sanitizers provides an increased health benefit over soap and water.
This isn’t to say that the availability and use of hand sanitizers is all bad. Most of us have, at one point or another, been in a situation where a quick squirt of hand sanitizer or an antibacterial wipe is the best and only option.
I personally relied on them while traveling through parts of Africa and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. At the very least I got the placebo benefits of thinking I was protecting myself from the plethora of bacteria I was likely exposed to. Anyone with a similar experience who’s familiar with the state of latrines in the third world knows exactly what I’m talking about. So if you do require hand sanitizer, the Centre for Disease Control recommends one containing at least 60% alcohol in order for it to be effective.
One of my favorite things to do is peruse the cosmetic aisles of my local health food store. The availability of natural and organic options has exploded over the years, leaving you with no excuse not to be an ecologically and health-minded consumer.
CleanWell is a brand that comes up first when searching the Internet, and sure enough, it was there on the shelf when I went to pick some up today. However, I opted to try two other varieties. The first, Quash, is 100% natural, alcohol free and claims to kill 99.9% of germs. Made from a concoction of ingredients that includes manuka honey, white willow bark extract and lavender essential oil, it also claims to have moisturizing powers – a nice change from the drying effects of alcoholic varieties.
The second, EO Hand Sanitizing Spray, is USDA-approved and made with organic ethanol, organic peppermint essential oils, vitamin E and organic thyme extract. Meeting the minimum 60% rule of thumb, the addition of peppermint oil gives it an invigorating scent, and it’s naturally antiseptic to boot.
Good Old Soap and Water
When a lack of running water or washing facilities isn’t an issue, nothing beats the age-old practice of hand washing with soap and water. Search upon search turns up countless articles all saying the same thing – that it’s just as, if not more, effective at combating the spread of germs as using hand sanitizer.
The key? Making sure it’s done properly. You only need a very small amount of water to get the job done, so don’t leave the tap running. The most important thing is to ensure you’re taking at least 20 seconds to thoroughly scrub both the front and back of your hands, including under the fingernails and in between the fingers. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve witnessed a “drive-by” rinse consisting of nothing more than turning on the tap and hands quickly passing underneath the water, ending with a quick rub and shake – without soap! This does little more than spread the germs around the surface of your hands. For more information on hand washing, the CDC has a page dedicated to it: http://www.cdc.gov/Features/HandWashing.
As with hand sanitizers, in the world of soap there are many natural gentle options that will treat your skin – and the environment – with care. Your local health food store is the best place to start. A general rule of thumb is, the less ingredients the better. And if you can’t pronounce or understand what an ingredient is, it’s probably not good for you. That being said, the following are some of the ingredients to look for in natural organic soaps.
These are the ingredients that prevent dryness and provide a protective barrier for the skin. Look for ingredients such as avocado oil, almond oil, shea or coconut butter. Cold-pressed oils are preferable, as this process helps to preserve their phytonutrients. Natural emollients will be absorbed right into your skin, are biodegradable and could be eaten without harm.
Preservatives tend to be associated with highly processed and packaged goods that need them to ensure a long shelf life. There are, however, natural varieties that include tea tree oil, grapefruit seed extract and apple cider vinegar.
Other ingredients to look for are grain alcohol (natural solvent), lecithin and glycerin (moisturizing agents), xanthan gum (emulsifier) and locust bean or guar gum (thickeners). Finally, look for soaps that are fragranced with natural organic essential oils. Not only will they smell phenomenal, many oils have unique properties. For example, peppermint oil has an invigorating effect and can be used to fight headaches and clear up the sinuses.
So there you have it. Using hand sanitizer every now and then is perfectly acceptable, but you don’t always have to reach for them to protect yourself from harmful bacteria. Perhaps the only downside to buying natural organic products is that like their food counterparts, they tend to come with a slightly higher price tag. On the plus side, buying natural products helps support small businesses that have your best interests in mind. You won’t find all natural hand sanitizers and soaps in the bargain bin, but when it comes to your health and the health of the environment, you shouldn’t always be bargaining.