In my last blog about the gastro outbreak in Havelock North, I wrote about the importance of hand washing in the context of preventing illnesses spreading. This led to me thinking about one of my ‘pet hates’ – the increasing trend for so many cleaning agents to be antibacterial and my belief that this is unnecessary and may even be harmful.
Looking around the supermarket recently, I found antibacterial hand soap, liquid soap, dishwashing liquid, dish brushes, cleaning sprays, laundry powder, cleaning cloths, sponges for floor mops, floor wipes – the list goes on and on! I even found antiperspirants/deodorants marketed as providing antibacterial defence. Many of these products are promoted as being essential to family health because they ‘kill 99.9% of bacteria & remove viruses’. By implication it seems that anything that isn’t antibacterial isn’t as good.
In contrast my understanding is that products containing antibacterials provide no advantage over ordinary soap and water in the quest for cleanliness. And what worries me more is that there is evidence their use may contribute to the increasing number of bacteria that are resistant to disinfectants and antibiotics.
Antibacterial soaps (sometimes called antimicrobial or antiseptic soaps) and cleaning agents contain chemical ingredients that plain soaps do not. Common ‘antibacterial’ ingredients are triclosan, triclocarbon and benzalkonium chloride. Research suggests that these ingredients contribute to bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics. This seems to be because there isn’t enough of the antibacterial ingredients in the hand wash or cleaning product to completely destroy bacteria and so some survive. These surviving bacteria reproduce and it’s these new strains that can become resistant to antibiotics and disinfectants. Bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics contribute to increased risks of infection in the community and in hospitals.
Talk of superbugs – strains of bacteria that are resistant to several types of antibiotics – is of real concern around the world. The World Health Organization stated recently that we could be heading to a “post-antibiotic age,” a time in which common infections and minor injuries can lead to death because antibiotics no longer work. A documentary shown on Prime TV earlier this year supported this view suggesting that in 10 years’ time we could see children dying from a simple injury such as a stubbed toe because we don’t have antibiotics to treat an infection that may occur as a result of the stubbed toe.
As well, the ‘obsession’ with cleanliness may be partly responsible for the increase in the number of people who suffer from allergic asthma and conditions such as hay fever. Some exposure to dirt may actually help your immune system by reducing your likelihood of developing an allergic reaction to common allergens. Being too clean can work against this. One article I read suggested we should target our hygiene practices to the areas of greatest risk, such as washing hands after going to the toilet and before handling food.
There’s no doubt that hand washing and home cleanliness are essential to good health. However healthy households do not need to use antibacterial products routinely. Effective hand washing with soap, and household cleaning using warm water and a plain detergent is an effective way to get rid of germs. Continued use of antibacterial products regularly may pose a wider health risk.
Written by: Jenny Cade
This blog provides general information and discussion about medicine, health and related subjects. The information contained in the blog and in any linked materials, are not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.
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