The “Antibacterial” Myth

In a world that’s increasingly filled with organic and inorganic pathogens that pose a host of threats to anyone or anything that comes in contact with them, it’s no wonder that we live in times that is ripe for the promotion and marketing of hyper-sanitization as the prescribed way of life. Antibacterial everything is the new ideal.

Antibacterial substances were originally used in environments such as hospitals and laboratories that required a superior level of sanitisation, given the nature of the work that they conduct within these premises. But as we’re relooking at everything we know about cleaning, and its impact on our health as well as that of the environment, it’s becoming increasingly clear that we may be living an antibacterial myth. We’re waking up to the fact that perhaps the entire antibacterial approach to cleaning is causing us more harm than we know.

How much is too much?
At the end of the day, antibacterials and antimicrobials are chemicals employed for the strict purpose of killing bacteria and microbes. As with any other chemical, they must be used with caution and deliberation. Indiscriminate use can inevitably have adverse consequences. When antibacterial chemicals were first introduced, they were limited to use in environments in need of sterilization. However today, they’ve made their way into a range of products including wet-wipes, cutting boards and other household plastics, toilet seats and other bathroom accessories, hand gels and some cosmetics too. We’re well into an era of overuse of antibacterials.

In early 2016, the US FDA began looking into this indiscriminate use of antibacterial chemicals in products, specifically how they employed Triclosan, and revealed that they added no additional cleaning benefits, and could be skipped altogether. But, it wasn’t until late 2016, that the FDA issued a mandate on the safe use of antibacterial products, pushing us to question if the idea that antibacterial products are essential, or if it is merely a convenient marketing-friendly myth.

Triclosan and the antibiotic resistance problem
Triclosan is widely used in antibacterial products. It is a biocide – a bacteria-killing substance – and an active ingredient in a range of consumer products with germicidal properties. Curiously, while antibacterials are ostensibly marketed as essential and required for our health, they are now being linked to the rise of superbugs due to the presence of biocides like triclosan that are destroying not just our health, but our eco-systems too.

That is not all. Today, superbugs are being linked to antibiotic resistance enhanced by the overuse of antibiotics, disinfectants and biocides in our environment. Infections such as salmonellosis, pneumonia, gonorrhoea and tuberculosis are on the rise, with greater resistance to the chemicals once used to fight them, making it harder and harder to build stronger antidotes. Over time, this could pose a huge challenge, especially for developing nations like India, that is fighting to handle rising medical care costs. Higher incidence of superbugs inevitably comes with rising antibiotic resistance which consequently means higher hospital costs, longer stays, a heightened risk of epidemic outbreak, and eventually an unhealthy mortality rate.

How do we combat this?
A good place to begin would be to fundamentally question if antibacterial chemicals deserve a place in your home, office or immediate environment. First and foremost let’s understand the difference between cleaning, disinfection and sterilization to determine what is needed in our homes.

Secondly, let’s understand the issue with antibiotic resistance and how overuse of antibacterial chemicals can enhance it. Much like the overuse of antibiotics – bacteria killing chemicals – are linked to bacteria developing resistance to medication, the same is true for the overuse of antibacterial chemicals causing bacteria to develop resistance to them.

When a bacterium repeatedly encounters its antidote with enough frequency, it has the capacity to develop mechanisms within it to fight the antidote. This occurs due to an organic change within the organism that either protects it from the action of the antidote or neutralizes it altogether, rendering it ineffective either way. A morphed bacterium, or what we call a superbug, becomes dangerous because it now has the capacity to multiply and pass on its capacity to resist the antidotes. In the case of antibacterial chemicals, the biocide, the same occurs with harmful bacteria within the home. This is essentially why we need to regulate the use of antibacterial substances altogether. The emphasis placed on hyper clean, sanitized surroundings that the modern, urban society tends to obsess over these days may very well be the reason why we are at this juncture today. This is also being linked to the sudden spike in instances of allergic asthma and conditions such as hay fever or allergic rhinitis.

The Hygiene Hypothesis is a theory that espouses a healthy degree of exposure to moderately “unclean” conditions. It questions current trends to over-clean and disinfect living environments that wipe out all microbes – good and bad. The theory also challenges norms of cleaning, making a case for safer, natural cleaning processes that can ensure that we are safe from the potential imbalance in the microbial biodiversity that is caused by over cleaning. It was introduced by Professor David P Stachan in the the 1980s based on his observation that when children were exposed to a range of germs, they actually experienced fewer instances of hay fever. Early, controlled exposure had helped build immunity and a capacity to fight infection when it struck. This formed the basis for his research and study of how exposure unclean conditions can in fact promote some degree of health and wellness in children.

According to the Hygiene Hypothesis, being in an environment that is not 100% free of microbes, is better than being in an environment cleaned using strong chemical antibacterials that not only strip away good microbes, but also introduce harmful chemicals into our system. Being in contact with a moderate degree of bacteria can therefore be good for building immunity and maintaining a required balance in microbes outside and inside our bodies. In other words, it’s probably good to get down and dirty every now and then. Ditch the antibacterial myth and explore alternative, natural cleaners instead.