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5 Reasons to End Our War on Germs Before it Kills Us All

Our war against germs is doing more harm than good.
 
 
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This article was published in partnership with  GlobalPossibilities.org.

Western civilization guards its health as if constantly menaced by a giant public toilet handle. That's because we know how to read statistics, like we carry between two to 10 million bacteria from fingertip to elbow, or that germs can stay alive for up to three hours. As the Food and Drink Federation of Great Britain cheerfully points out, there can be as many germs under your ring as there are people in Europe.

We are a culture of germaphobes, spending as much as $930 million on antibacterial chemicals and $2.4 billion on soap at the end of the last decade. But is it possible that our war against germs is doing more harm than good?

Antibacterial or antimicrobial products do have a place in our society: in hospitals, on the surgeon’s table, in your nurse’s hands. But stationed in our handbags, waiting to be daily lathered up at the first touch of a subway pole? Not so much. Studies show that some antimicrobial products not only contain potential hormonal disruptors, but they are enabling superbugs to breed beyond our ability to smite them. Here are five reasons you should trade in some of your antibacterial sprays, gels and liquid soaps for just plain old soap and water.

1. Triclosan. For more than 30 years, triclosan has been used in hand soaps, cosmetics, deodorants, toothpastes, clothes, detergents, and more. The Centers for Disease Control reports that triclosan is found in the urine of nearly 75 percent of people tested. Other studies have shown it to be in the breast milk and blood samples of the general population. It is marketed under other names such as Microban, Irgasan DP-300, Lexol 300, Biofresh, Ster-Zac, Cloxifenolum, and more.

So now that we know we’re likely hosting triclosan like Times Square hosts tourists, let’s look at its safety. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration currently does not list triclosan as a hazardous ingredient; however, in light of several recent studies showing adverse effects in animal testing, the FDA is currently reviewing this position. Triclosan is shown to alter hormone regulation in frogs, resulting in altered behavior and possible infertility. A recent study in 2012 revealed that triclosan is “linked with muscle function impairments in humans and mice, as well as slowing the swimming of fish.”

Liquid soap manufacturers, which as the New York Times points out, represent half of the $750 million market for liquid hand soaps in the United States, continue to claim triclosan has no harmful effects on humans. But while companies such as Dial keep using the questionable antimicrobial, others, such as Colgate-Palmolive, have started to replace tricolsan with different ingredients.

2. Natural selection. So imagine you’re slathering your hands with antibacterial soap. While most of the bacteria on your skin reacts like it's Armageddon, a few remain. These hardy bacteria—now resistant to your soap—adapt and mutate to successfully ward off your next sudsy assault on their existence. Microbiologists refer to this process as “selection,” and several studies show that it’s causing some bacteria to resist antibiotics.  

Then you get a bacterial infection, and your doctor prescribes antibiotics. As Discovery Health points out, “some antibacterial agents go after the same physiology of bacteria that prescription antibiotics do.” This means that if the bacteria making you sick already has a resistance to antibacterial agents because of previous exposure, it’s not going to work as well or at all. Think of it this way—do you really want superbugs playing out War of the Worlds in your body?

 
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