Yesterday I saw an article at the Consumerist about hand sanitizer and how it isn’t very good at fighting colds or the flu – two things that it is at least indirectly touted at doing. It is only the latest sign that the ‘antibacterial everything’ trend is finally getting a much-needed reality check. A couple of items of note:
- The study shows that the difference in infection rate for cold & flu for those who used hand sanitizer every 3 hours was not statistically different from those who did not. (in other words, those who simply washed their hands with soap and water)
- Antibacterial soap was already debunked, with the FDA saying it “does not have evidence that triclosan in antibacterial soaps and body washes provides any benefit over washing with regular soap and water.”
I’m not saying that all antibacterial treatments are useless, just that the ‘antibacterial everything’ hysteria is unfounded. A couple of important uses:
- It is important to note that especially in developing countries it has been shown that the use of hand sanitizers (more so than antibacterial soaps) is effective on cutting down the transmission of gastrointestinal diseases.
- Also, hand sanitizers and antibacterial soaps are critically useful in hospitals and other tightly controlled environments where the presence of viruses and bacteria can be a major health issue.
- Also in hospitals, there is a critical use of alcohol-based hand sanitizer (as opposed to the triclosan based stuff that is still common) to fight the spread of MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus), which is a staph infection that resists multiple antibiotics.
As I said, the ‘antibacterial everything’ mentality is unfounded – but even worse, it could be harmful! Here are some potential harms:
- A product that claims to kill “99% of all bacteria” necessarily DOES NOT 1% of bacteria, right? So that 1% not killed will multiply! And since they weren’t killed by the product initially, they must have an immunity to it, meaning that the products become inherently less effective over time.
- Also, the body’s best defense against disease agents is its own immune system. You keep the immune system primed by ALLOWING it access to disease agents. People who live in plastic bubbles never have a chance to develop immunities, so when disease agents inevitably get through the plastic wrap, the body has little defense. The same concept applies to antibiotics. The inevitable effect of the overuse of antibiotics is that we have bred stronger bacteria resistant to them.
- Norovirus, which is the common ‘stomach flu’ is notoriously resistant to most common disinfectants, including most hand sanitizers. This is in contrast to the third world not above, where the bacteria are killed. In this case, hand sanitizers still do not replace hand washing when fighting the spread of Norovirus.
- Hand sanitizers contain either alcohol or triclosan. Alcohol, particularly in the levels present, is highly flammable. Triclosan is a pesticide which isn’t KNOWN to be dangerous to humans, but neither has that danger been ruled out.
- Sanitizers are particularly dangerous for children: they are just building their immunity, so sanitizers can actually hinder that development. Also, since sanitizers are toxic, and kids put everything in their mouth … well, it is just a bad idea.
Perhaps the most dangerous part of this trend is that it has planted a seed of thought that using sanitizer is a replacement for washing hands – which again is most dangerous for small kids! Hand sanitizers have their place in laboratories and medical uses, but for everyone else … just take the time (30 seconds) to properly wash your hands, there is absolutely nothing better!