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When there’s an outbreak of the flu or your toddler has picked up an unknown substance off the floor and put it in their mouth, the temptation is to go DEFCON 5 and break out the strongest antibacterial aerosols and cleansers we can find. However, recent research suggests that over-sanitizing with these strong cleaning products may be doing more harm than good when it comes to our health in the long-term.
Modern hygiene practices have helped us eradicate some of the most deadly diseases in history, but we may have taken our quest for clean too far. According to new research out of Canada, common cleansing products may be contributing to childhood obesity. And as much as we love the smell of fresh, clean laundry and scented candles, studies show the chemicals we are using in these scented products may be causing respiratory, skin, and neurological issues, not to mention taking their toll on our immune systems.
The human microbiome has received a lot of attention and extensive research in recent years. This collection of trillions of microorganisms and beneficial bacteria is like our own little ecosystem inside our bodies, and is dramatically affected by what we breathe, eat, drink, and put on our skin. Your mental and physical wellness depend on a healthy, balanced microbiome to keep you healthy and well.
This individualized collection of beneficial bacteria is responsible for many major functions in your body. From supporting the immune system and helping us to digest and absorb nutrients from the foods we eat and supplements we take, to regulating metabolism and ultimately our weight, the health of our microbiomes is critical to our wellbeing.
When there aren’t enough beneficial bacteria in our microbiomes, we suffer from a myriad of health issues, including weight gain, digestive issues, and inflammation. Unfortunately, our modern lifestyle is wiping out these delicate populations with excess sugar, immunosuppressive drugs, overuse of antibiotics, toxins in our food and water, chronically high stress levels, and even antibacterial cleansers and hygiene products.
As we gain more understanding of the role of beneficial bacteria in our health and homes, we need to shift our ideas of cleanliness to preserve these delicate populations, rather than eradicate them with broad-spectrum antibacterial cleansers.
A study just published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found an association between households that heavily use disinfectants like multi-surface cleaners and aerosols and childhood obesity. Researchers looked at over 750 infants and found lower levels of harmful bacteria like Clostridium and Haemophilus, but higher levels of bacteria associated with weight gain and obesity. These children were twice as likely to be obese as children raised in homes using eco-friendly cleaning products.
“Antibacterial cleaning products have the capacity to change the environmental microbiome and alter risk for child overweight,” wrote the authors.
This isn’t the first study to find harmful effects of these broad-spectrum antibacterials. Scientists have found common antibacterial compounds found in toothpastes, mouthwashes, cosmetics, antiperspirants, household cleaners, and hand soaps not only deplete your healthy bacteria, but have other adverse health effects.
Triclosan, a commonly used antibacterial that was in everything from hand soaps to toys, was linked to serious health issues, including thyroid, hormone, and skin problems, as well as depleted mouth and intestinal flora, simply by being absorbed through the skin – even in pregnant women. Once studies showed this chemical didn’t provide any more antibacterial protection than washing with regular soap and water, and it caused more harm than good, public pressure and certain state government bans started forcing it out of many products. It is still lurking in many soaps and other personal hygiene products and should be avoided.
We all know that one person who fills the room with their cologne or perfume, but what about that “fresh, clean smell” of laundry just out of the dryer, or that wax melt burner plugged into the outlet that reminds you of apple pie? A single fragrance in any of these products can contain a mixture of hundreds of chemicals, some of which react with ozone in the air to form dangerous pollutants, like formaldehyde, that not only irritate sensitive respiratory systems, but can cause chronic asthma, skin conditions, neurologic issues, and even cancer.
Indoor air quality is some of the worst it’s ever been, thanks to airtight building structures and more volatile organic compounds (VOCs) being used in everything from paint to deodorant. Products intended to keep our homes and workplaces smelling fresh can set you up for a lifetime of chemically-induced illness, according to researchers. Nearly 25 percent of workplace-related cases of fragrance-induced asthma were new onset in this California study, meaning the fragrances they were exposed to in their workplace caused their asthma. Other conditions like migraine, seizures in children, eczema, and more have been reported with exposure to these common chemicals.
The Consumer Products Safety Commission currently regulates cleaning supplies, air fresheners, and laundry products, and does not require manufacturers to list any ingredients on the labels, including fragrances. The same is true for these chemicals in personal care products, which is overseen by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). According to a recent study on household fragrances:
Just like we now are aware of the dangers of secondhand smoke and have smoking bans in many public places, we need similar policies to create fragrance-free public places and educate people on the dangers of these chemicals in the home as well.
As information on the negative health effects of chemical cleansers and fragrances comes to light, the eco-friendly cleaning products market is booming with many safe alternatives to choose from. When choosing your cleaning products, don’t just take the label’s word for it when it says “natural” or carries a familiar name brand; read the ingredients and do your research. Avoid gimmicks and fads and stick to “tried and true” cleaning solutions. For instance, there is a new trend to “home-biotics” which claim to balance the probiotics in your home environment, but so far no studies have been done to show they’re effective.
When it comes to cleaning your hands, old-fashioned soap and water, using plenty of friction, consistently scores high in studies for eliminating harmful bacteria. You’ll always have some bacteria present on your skin, but it should be primarily beneficial and help ward off the unwanted invaders. Avoid soaps and lotions that claim antibacterial properties – they may do more harm than good when it comes to your microbiome – even when they’re all-natural.
For household cleaning, you only need a few items on hand to take care of most of your cleaning tasks. When you need an abrasive, baking soda is a safe, inexpensive alternative. White vinegar mixed in equal parts with an eco-friendly dish soap and put in a spray bottle can clean even the most stubborn stains off showers, sinks, and bathtubs. You can infuse your vinegar with citrus peels for a fresher scent and more cleaning power for countertops, faucets, and doorknobs.
Avoid scented laundry products of all types. Essential oils are extremely popular, but are respiratory irritants for sensitive babies and small children. Wool dryer balls can be used to eliminate static cling in place of synthetic-fragranced dryer sheets.
For many of us, this information is coming too late. We’ve already accumulated these toxins in our bodies, and our livers are over-burdened trying to eliminate them, so symptoms and illnesses have already appeared. The good news is, even the most sensitive among us – our children – can reduce the toxic load on our bodies with a few simple solutions.