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Hand Sanitizers and Antibacterials – Who Needs Them?

Filed in: Products & Services

Reader Question

Dear Ashley,

With the apparent “swine flu pandemic” upon us, a person cannot walk into any public space, drug store or shopping centre without being greeted by a bottle of hand sanitizer. On top of this we it seems like there are countless products on the market, which claim to kill 99.9% of germs; others labeled antibacterial; and still others that are impregnated with antimicrobial products, such as cutting boards and facial tissues. Are any of these products necessary to protect the health of my family and if so, which products are actually effective in preventing the spread of disease and illness?



Our Answer

Dear Katie,

Turn on the television or walk down the cleaning isle and it doesn’t take long to that see germ-killing products are everywhere. The availability of antimicrobial products has grown from several dozen in the mid-1990s to nearly 1000 today. The reason people are drawn to these products is clear: they believe they are protecting themselves from becoming sick. But the idea that we can create a sterile environment is nothing short of a fantasy and trying to achieve a sterile environment may be doing us more harm than good.

This is because most of the microbes that surround us are either beneficial or necessary. They reside in our digestive tract and they live on our skin, providing a line of defense against more nasty bacteria and viruses. When we use antimicrobial and antibacterial products we indiscriminately kill all bacteria - good and bad. This is troublesome because there is considerable evidence to suggest that some exposure to bacteria is actually necessary in helping the immune system to develop. The trick, then, is to protect the beneficial microbes while killing the infectious ones when they threaten to make us ill.

The best way to do this, according to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) is to use common sense and to practice “good” hand washing techniques. The website suggests, “using an adequate amount of soap, rubbing the hands together to create friction, and rinsing under running water”. When no soap or water is available, waterless hand scrubs are suggested as an alternative, as long as hands are not heavily contaminated with dirt, blood, or other organic materials (more on this later). They do not recommend the use of antibacterial products, citing them as “overkill”.

What the CCOHS means when they say “overkill” is uncertain but antibacterial agents, particularly Triclosan, have raised considerable concern in recent years. Triclosan - an FDA regulated pesticide - has recently been found in the breast milk of healthy mothers, as well as in aquatic environments around the globe. Its overuse is shown to contribute to the proliferation of antibiotic resistant bacteria and this has broad implications for public health. And according to Dr. Stuart Levy of the Tufts University School of Medicine, antibacterials like Triclosan are being added to household products, “even though an added health benefit has not been demonstrated.”

So despite the problems associated with antibacterial products and the lack of evidence showing their benefits, why are they still being sold and why do people continue to purchase them? I suppose these questions could be applied to tens of thousands of products but we know from experience that just because something is for sale doesn’t make it safe or good for us (think tobacco).  It is really up to citizens to inform themselves and make decisions based on this information. A bit of skepticism is a healthy thing.

Now some people might be asking: is there not a time and place for antibacterial products, like when I’m preparing raw chicken? It is true that kitchens are prime breeding grounds for bacteria, particularly in dish sponges and rags, but simple steps can significantly reduce contamination without relying on antibacterial products. One simple step is to replace kitchen sponges regularly and wash dishcloths frequently. It is also wise to soak both in boiling water for several minutes to kill any bacteria that might be present. This can be done as often as needed. Another good practice is to have a designated cutting board for meat and another for fruits and vegetables, as this will help to prevent cross-contamination. Counters and cutting boards should be cleaned with hot, soapy water (or the hot dishwashing setting) to remove any questionable bacteria, especially when raw meat is being prepared. For more information on safe kitchen practices click here.

Now, I said I’d come back to the point on “waterless hand scrubs” – a.k.a. hand sanitizers - so here it goes. The main ingredient in these products is alcohol and alcohol is very effective against both viruses and bacteria, making them an acceptable alternative in a pinch. Keep in mind that most name-brand hand sanitizers are loaded with petroleum-based skin conditioners and artificial fragrances, ingredients that have nothing to do with the sanitation process. Some good alternatives include: EO Hand Sanitizer, which uses organic ingredients and plant-based alcohol and CleanWell, a unique product that uses thyme oil as its disinfecting agent. Both products are proven to kill 99.99% of viruses and bacteria and both should be available at your local natural food store. As with any antimicrobial product, you do not want to overuse it, as you’ll be killing all of the bacteria - good and bad. Remember, some bacteria are necessary for us to be well.

If you’d like more information on green cleaning see Green Calgary’s Green Cleaning Guide.


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