Ask Eartha: Handwringing over hand sanitizer
January 23, 2014
It seems like everyone at work has the sniffles right now. I can't afford to get sick! Is it better to use soap and water or hand sanitizer to stay healthy? What's in hand sanitizers that kills all those germs anyway?
— Richard, Dillon
There is definitely something going around these days. Whether it is a simple cold, the flu or something else yucky, we have to try to stay healthy by keeping the germs away and balancing it with environmental consciousness. You bring up an interesting and very timely topic. How can we stay healthy while keeping our natural environment healthy? There are a couple of things you need to know before your next sanitizing session.
After 42 years of FDA research along with countless independent studies, it has been proven that antibacterial hand sanitizers do not offer any clinical benefits that good old soap and water don't offer already. Soap and hand sanitizers tie when it comes to keeping you from getting sick. You can get bars of yummy smelling soaps locally at the Summit Soap Co. located in Breckenridge or online at summitsoap.com. Buying soap from local producers saves greatly on the carbon footprint of your bathroom.
The FDA is requesting that manufacturers of antibacterial products look deeper into the health impacts of their key ingredient, triclosan. Otherwise you might notice products such as hand sanitizers starting to disappear off the shelves. The change of heart from the FDA comes in part from the observation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The heavy use of antibacterial cleaners that started back in the 1990s has resulted in several strains of "super bacteria" that evolved through random mutation and constant exposure to the same recipe of sanitizer. The World Health Organization has sited it as a "threat to global health security."
Triclosan, the main ingredient of most hand sanitizers, has also been identified as an endocrine disruptor. Because triclosan can penetrate the skin so easily and it resembles a hormone in many ways, the body allows it to interfere with the thyroid, resulting in early puberty, obesity and even some cancers. Children with prolonged exposure to tricolsan are also at a higher risk for allergies. This has proven to be a prevalent issue since a 2008 study where triclosan was found in the urine of 75 percent of the people tested.
When that 75 percent with triclosan in their systems flushes the toilet, or when anyone uses antibacterial soap in the sink, they are impacting the local waterways and the health of the environment. Triclosan has been shown to survive the water-treatment process and ends up in our water systems, where it disrupts the ability of algae and other plants to photosynthesize. Since it is a fat-soluble chemical it also has the ability to biomagnify. This means that triclosan can concentrate in animals higher up the food chain, as shown in a 2009 survey of bottle nose dolphins off the coast of Florida. Since we are one of the few at the very top the food chain this is more bad news for us.
So what is a health-conscious person to do? Well, there are a lot of options. The best idea is to scrub your hands in hot water with a good bar of soap. Soaps that do not test on animals and feature natural ingredients make it all the better. Check out the natural section of your favorite grocery store. Chances are, they have great selections of liquid, bar and foaming soaps that are good for you and the environment. For more information about how to properly dispose of all our pharmaceuticals and personal care products, check out highcountryconservation.org
If you are someone who just can't give up the convenience of having hand sanitizer available at your desk or in your bag, make sure to read the ingredients on the back. Look specifically for triclosan and just put it back on the shelf. Try to find a triclosan-free option that features alcohol as its main ingredient. Know that these alcohol-based sanitizers such as Purell do not remove dirt or other solids. If someone in your house is already sick, encourage frequent hand washing in hot water with soap and use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer after coughs and sneezes. Remember that your health regime affects more than just you and your stuffy nose.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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