We all know that our greatest ally in the fight against germs is washing our hands. This being the case, it makes sense that we buy the most powerful handwash we possibly can – queue antibacterial soap. And then, we should keep the germs at bay all day long by repeatedly dosing our hands with sanitiser, right?
Unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple as that. Not only has the effectiveness of antibacterial soaps never been proven, but they may also be harming our health – and the health of our children – in other ways.
These are some of the arguments against antibacterial soap:
- They have not been proven to be any more effective than normal soap and water. That’s right – antibacterial soaps do not reduce the transmission of respiratory or gastrointestinal illnesses. This is because most of these infections are caused by viruses, not bacteria.
- They are contributing to the creation of drug-resistant bacteria. Along with the overuse of antibiotics, antibacterial soap is actually creating stronger strains of bugs.
- They can actually be bad for your health. Research has shown that children who have used significant amounts of antibacterial soaps are more likely to develop food and respiratory allergies. Scientists believe that early exposure to bacteria is essential for proper immune system development.
- They are bad for the environment. Triclosan, the active ingredient in most antibacterial soaps, prevents downstream algae from photosynthesising, and has even been found in the fatty tissue of dolphins.
Of course, handwashing is one of the mainstays of hygiene, and no one’s suggesting that we give up on this beneficial practice. Instead, here is an outline of the best approach to staying healthy:
- Wash your hands in soap and water before and after handling food, before and after leaving the house and any time you have come into contact with a sick person.
- Dry them with a fresh towel, pulled down paper towel or air blower. Do not use a damp public towel. If none of these options is available, air dry your hands.
- Try to avoid touching your face, as this is how you spread disease from your hands into your body.
- Cough or sneeze into your elbow, not your hand.
- If you use a tissue, throw it away and wash your hands.
- Refrain from shaking hands if you are sick, and from shaking hands with a sick person.
Although hand washing is beneficial, it’s also good for people – especially children with developing immune systems – to get a little dirty. Here are some practices you should be encouraging:
- Lots of outdoor play, especially in sand and mud.
- Close access to pets, let them snuggle up.
- Visits to farms or rural areas, where they can get close to animals and healthy dirt. The more outdoor activities the better (Safety first though!)
- Don’t worry too much about them putting appropriately sized objects into their mouths, once they are able to crawl they’ll grab everything they can! Just be sure to keep the items they can choke on far out of reach.
- Speak to your doctor or paediatrician about the appropriate age to introduce potentially allergenic foods – it is now believed that the later introduction of these foods is causing, rather than preventing, food allergies.
As we’ve outlined, washing your hands regularly is still the best way to prevent the transmission of germs, but you aren’t improving your chances of staying healthy with the use of antibacterial soaps or hand sanitisers. Rather work on developing good and proven hygiene habits, and embrace the notion that a little dirt is actually quite good for you.