“Why are we so concerned about adding bacteria into our gut with fermented foods, when we’re using antibacterial cleaners everywhere else?”
So said an astute but confused woman at a fermented foods seminar I attended at Kickshaw’s in Downtown Fredericksburg earlier this Spring. I loved the owner Kathy’s answer almost as much as I did the question:
“While my home is by no means filthy, neither is it sterile.”
This is a distinction we seem to have lost in this age of anti-bacterial everything. From household cleaners to body washes, hand soaps, and even antibacterial cutting boards, we, as a nation, have developed a phobia of germs which persists even as our awareness of the need for “good bacteria” or probiotics in our guts rises.
So why are bacteria in your gut good, and bacteria on your doorknobs bad? Honestly, they’re not. Yes, there are “bad” bacteria and viruses alive on surfaces throughout the world. But there are also a plethora of “good” bacteria – bacteria which is vital to our microbiome. You see, even in just our own skin, we are not alone. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), each and every one of us has “10-100 trillion symbiotic microbial cells” in and on our bodies at any given moment. This includes gut bacteria, but also the trillions of bacteria that live throughout our bodies and on our skin.
While scientists and physicians have only recently begun to study and attempt to catalog this vast group of tagalongs, it is already clear that we have a vital, symbiotic relationship with these microbes – one which over use of antibacterial products threatens to imbalance and destroy. As the Scientific American Journal put it, “plain soap and water simply dislodge bacteria from skin, triclosan (one of the active ingredients in many anti-bacterial soaps) weakens and kills the microorganisms.” This also raises the possibility of triggering mutations in the targeted bacteria which could allow them to become resistant to not only triclosans, but also to antibiotics which act in a similar manner. As many recent headlines can attest, the idea of antibiotic resistant bacteria is a reality the medical community is eager to avoid.
And if it’s not scary enough to know that we are waging war not just on the bacteria that make us sick but also on those that keep us healthy, those anti-bacterial soaps leave a residue of their own. It’s the chemical makeup of these residues which led the FDA to finally announce last week, four decades after these products first appeared on our shelves, that they are banning 19 of the active ingredients found in most antibacterial soaps because the companies that produce them have failed to provide enough evidence, if any at all, that these are safe for long-term and repeated use. As stated by Dr. Woodcock of the FDA, “antibacterial ingredients may do more harm than good over the long-term” and, in fact, the scientific and medical communities “have no scientific evidence that they are any better than plain soap and water.”
So why, then, you may ask does Old Dominion Osteopathic Medicine still have antibacterial hand sanitizer in the office? As with many things Dr. Sneed advocates, it is all about moderation. Anti-bacterial soaps have their place – specifically, as even the FDA indicated in their exclusions to the antibacterial soap ban, hospital environments. Hospitals and medical offices have a much higher likely hood of hosting bacteria much nastier than your average cold bug, and are also fast-paced environments where medical staff may not have time to do a thorough washing between patients – but can use a quick glop of antibacterial hand sanitizer when necessary. However, whenever possible, Dr. Sneed always prefers to visit the washroom in between patients and wash his hands with actual soap and water instead.
If you don’t live in a hospital environment, or under conditions which your physician determines requires a sterile environment is vital, you can do a few quick swaps in your soaps and routines to minimize exposure to antibacterial ingredients (even in the still allowed hand sanitizers and wipes). The easiest one is to swap out your antibacterial soaps with regular soap. Because of our culture of sterilization, these antibacterial soaps are usually clearly and proudly marked on the package as such. A local bar soap is a wonderful option, but any non-antibacterial soap will do. As for that hand sanitizer in your purse, keep it there for when you accidentally shake hands with someone who frequently wipes their nose on their hands during flu season, but visit the washroom for a true soap and water experience whenever possible.
In our own home, we try to teach our children (and ourselves) to wash their hands before every meal and after every visit to the bathroom with regular soap and water. We use gentle, non-antibiotic cleansers on our counters unless we see a real need for an antibacterial clean, and we use wooden cutting boards rather than antibacterial-treated plastic cutting boards. Our home, and our bodies, are clean without being sterile – a healthy balance for us and our microbes.
- FDA Consumer Update: http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm378393.htm
- FDA Press Announcement: http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm517478.htm
- Scientific American:
- National Center for Biotechnology Information: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3426293/