When clean is bad

Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Superman? Not actually. It’s the clear, magic sanitizing liquid in a bottle, claiming the power to kill the germs that invade our world.

But, like Superman, it’s everywhere–mounted at the most convenient spots in the local grocery stores, neatly positioned on the desks of most every office in UTSA, and perched on the counters and in gyms and libraries.

Once properly applied and rubbed on your hands, just one dime-sized drop of this increasingly popular product, as indicated in its directions, is promised to save you a trip to the nearby sink–that is, if there is even a sink nearby. But are hand sanitizers really a safe alternative to hand washing? Or do they do more harm than good?

In 1966, Lupe Hernandez invented hand sanitizers as an alcohol-based sanitizing product for hospital use. Now available to the general public, they are often advertised as being “99.99 percent effective in killing germs and bacteria” and ultimately preventing pathogenic illnesses. They are touted as an alcohol-based quick cleaner to promote and maintain good hygiene.

However, though most of the product’s ingredients have antibacterial properties, one ingredient found in certain hand sanitizers has sparked some degree of controversy for its adverse health effects. This ingredient is the chemical triclosan, which, according to recent studies, may have some alarming effects.

As an active ingredient in detergents, soaps and other common household products, triclosan has been linked to several respiratory illnesses, such as allergies and asthma, and potentially increases the risk of infection.

A study by the University of Virginia revealed that hand sanitizers cause respiratory illnesses because one of its ingredients, an antimicrobial chemical, creates an overly sterile environment for the body. This, in turn, weakens the immune system to the point where it no longer knows how to fight off bacteria, thus preventing it from properly fighting off illnesses.

To have a properly functioning immune system, some level of exposure to germs must be permitted.

Additionally, studies conducted by Professor Allison Aiello, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, and her students show that triclosan found in some hand sanitizers can increase one’s risk of developing an infection. Triclosan and other antibacterial chemicals not only destroy harmful bacteria, but also they destroy the beneficial bacteria the body needs to function properly and maintain optimum health.

Results from this study indicate that bacteria resistant to triclosan also seem to have developed a resistance to antibiotic drugs. If a user is to develop some kind of bacterial illness, scientists fear that there is likelihood that continuous use of triclosan containing hand-sanitizers could lead to the development of “resistance bacteria” or bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics and are hard to kill, such as MRSA, which have been deemed “superbugs.”

Hand sanitizers are a fast and convenient way to clean your hands when washing is not possible, but the next time you reach for that two-ounce bottle of “disease- preventing” hand sanitizer, you may want to reconsider. Is it fighting germs as it states, or is it sanitizing your skin while creating problems within?

You may be far better off without it. Besides, as Professor John Oxford of the Royal London Hospital, says, what is important is not what you use to wash your hands but how you wash your hands. Try soap and water instead—an old-fashioned but effective super power.