Key Takeaway: Using antibacterial agents too much, or being a neat freak – whether it’s your body or your surroundings – can actually be harmful for you in the long run, as your body either loses the opportunity to learn how to defend itself, or gets introduced to potentially deadly chemicals. I invite you to moderate your hygienic practices – do it properly but do not be perfectionist about it.
How much and how often do you clean your hands? Your tables? Your phones, even?
If you’re like me, chances are you wash at every opportunity you’ve got. You handle some pasta for cooking – wash. You hand-transfer ice cubes into your glass – wash. You tie your bootlaces – wash. You open and close public doors – wash. You handle money – wash.
But did you know that there can be downsides – and even dangers – to over-cleaning?
This is especially true when you use antibacterial washes and soaps. Rob Dunn, writing in Scientific American, gives us insight into this. Not only does constantly using antibacterials provide little, if any, marginal benefits over those who clean with regular soap, research has shown that we may actually be more susceptible to sicknesses in doing so. This may not hold if we are perfectly healthy, but with an already-compromised system, this may complicate things.
Let me summarize further. Our bodies normally have two kinds of bacteria resting in us: our “bodily” bacteria that have made our bodies their home, are not harmful to us, and can even act as natural defenses to whatever out there befalls us; and foreign bacteria that are harmful – the bacteria from sicknesses, for example.
In using regular cleaning agents, only the harmful bacteria are removed. In using antibacterials all the time, it seems that even the so-called “friendly” bacteria are killed unintentionally – and therefore make our bodies more vulnerable. As mentioned, when we are healthy, this doesn’t matter, because the bacteria probably aren’t busy repairing our bodies enough such that they can devote their energies to regrouping and recovering. But when we are sick, well, that’s a different story.
It doesn’t end there. What happens when the antibacterials are flushed down the drain? They kill even those bacteria present in the infrastructures that absorb triclosan, which is a harmful chemical found in things like detergents. It may not be toxic to us, but it can be to aquatic organisms big and small. Meaning, too much of it and you get a potential environmental risk.
In some situations where absolute sterility is needed, such as a pre-operation condition at the hospital, antibacterials are good. But I would rather use regular soap and sanitizer most of the time – all-natural, harmful-chemical-free ones at that.
But that’s not where our story ends.
Using antibacterials constantly is just one side of the coin. The other side is performing the act of handwashing with soap – or other parts of your body – too much, too “perfectly”. Hsin-Yi Cohen, BSc, MA, MSt writes that when the balance between good hygiene and being obsessive-compulsive is not met and leans towards the latter, it can be dangerous for us. There are two such dangers.
The first is that the risk of getting allergies or autoimmune illnesses increases from too sterile an environment, especially in children – their bodies simply no longer know how to deal with harmful foreign invaders, from being so used to living in an overly clean environment. Their immune systems have not been able to train and develop properly to handle the enemy. The analogy is like a general who never made his troops practice – even daily camp training practice – out of fear that something bad would happen to them, even if minor. Allowing a minor, healthy amount of microbes to come into regular contact with your body is like allowing those troops to perform daily exercises – it trains and develops them. In fact, some microorganisms are beneficial to our immune systems as they provide good training opportunities – such as those found in mud.
The second is that, if your cleaning agents are not all-natural or harmful-chemical-free, the toxins found in said products may eventually do more harm than good, especially if applied too much.
These two situations are not limited to personal care. Even in urban environmental care, especially household cleaning, can these unpleasant side-effects arise. The latter, in particular, is more common in household cleaning agents, such as carpet detergents and window-cleaning fluids. Many disinfectants contain phenols, which are very toxic compounds used to mask smells. Phenol is absorbed easily by the body, and those who are hypersensitive to it can die quickly. Even isopropyl alcohol can potentially cause cancer (which is why we should use ethyl alcohol or a natural alternative).
It’s one thing to practice good hygiene, as shown above. But it is another to be perfectionist and extreme about it, as it can harm you rather than benefit you in the long term. I therefore invite you to moderate your hygienic practices – keeping them effective and at the same time safe.
Do you over-clean or overuse antibacterial agents? Comment below!