Sanitize This

By Christopher Crown

November 17, 2017 4 min read

In director David Fincher's provocative 1999 film, "Fight Club," we see a dark side to the world of soap-making. Although current home-cleaning companies might not be using character Tyler Durden's methods, there has been a lot of controversy around the world of antibacterial soaps and their potential dangers to human health.

We live in a sanitized world, says Markham Heid, a contributor for Time, and it's possible that this rigorous scrubbing and devotion to killing all bacteria is doing more harm than good. Is it possible that we should heed Durden's advice and "stop being perfect" -- that we should "evolve (and) let the chips fall where they may"?

Although there is currently a lot of debate on the topic of antibacterial soap, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cuts straight through the haze and delivers a powerful message on its hand-washing resource page. Citing six recent scientific studies in peer-reviewed scholarly journals (some of them are even meta-analyses of many other papers), the CDC states that there are no observable benefits of using soaps containing antibacterial ingredients over using traditional soaps. Martin Blaser, director of the Human Microbiome Program at New York University, adds to this, claiming that although humans see eliminating any and all microbes as being beneficial, it is actually weakening the human race and strengthening bacterial strains. In his book "Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics Is Fueling Our Modern Plagues," Blaser elaborates on this claim. Antibiotics, which many think of as just coming in pill form from the doctor, are actually any medication or ingredient that is meant to kill microbes -- microscopic life-forms living all around us and in us.

So yes, azithromycin from your doctor is an antibiotic, but so are hand sanitizer and your favorite citrusy dish soap. By killing all the bacteria in our lives, Blaser claims, we are weakening our internal microbiome (the host of microorganisms that help our body function) and also are artificially helping the most powerful antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. By killing all the weak bacteria with a hand soap that boasts a 99 percent kill rate, you leave the strongest 1 percent alive to reproduce and multiply. This "antibiotic resistance" is called a "threat to global health security" on the World Health Organization's website.

Beyond harming human health, antibacterial soaps are also affecting the environment. Joseph Stromberg writes in the journal Smithsonian that the U.S. Geological Survey has found large traces of antibiotics from soaps seeping into lakes, tributaries and oceans, even after wastewater purification. Stromberg goes on to say that this form of pollution can inhibit photosynthetic function in algae -- the base food source for almost all ocean food chains -- and therefore biomagnify in larger ocean species because animals higher on the food chain are exposed to dangerous levels by eating animals that have accumulated toxicity.

Closer to home, however, there is a movement to restrengthen the human immune system by eliminating wanton antibiotic use. Many "hippie parents" are choosing to eliminate antibacterial products and let their children play in the dirt. On NPR in July, Lulu Garcia-Navarro reported that children need germs to strengthen their ability to fight infection.

Although microbes are becoming harder to kill, the best bet seems to be to ditch antibacterial soaps, go back to basics and let our bodies coevolve against the bacteria in our lives.

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