The Link Between Cleanliness and Good Bacteria
In September 2016, America banned antibacterial soaps, or rather, 19 additives commonly found in soaps having antibacterial properties.
When I read this in the news, I was frankly shocked. America? The land of Froot Loops and Lucky Charms, cronuts and cheese dogs, where individual choice soars high over government intervention on health and wellbeing. Yet here is America, taking something so widely accepted as antibacterial soap, off the market?
“Some data suggests that antibacterial ingredients may do more harm than good over the long term,” said Dr Janet Woodcock, director of the FDA (that’s the US Food and Drug’s Administration), in a statement. “Consumers may think antibacterial washes are more effective at preventing the spread of germs, but we have no scientific evidence that they are better than plain soap and water.”
This research had been going on since 2013. I have read previously about the potential harm of excessive hygiene. One of my favourite books on our digestive and microbial health is GUT by Gulia Enders and she had mentioned this too - and I love her analogy.
Gulia likens the cleanliness of our gut to the cleanliness of a forest. “A wood is ‘clean’ if the beneficial plants it contains are in healthy equilibrium. We can help the forest along - by sowing seeds and hoping new plants will take root. We can identify favourite or useful plants in the forest, and nurture them to help them grow and multiply.
"Sometimes there are nasty pests. Then, careful consideration is in order. If the situation is desperate, chemical pesticides are great at killing pests, but it is not a great idea to spray them round like air freshener."
Still, question remains why are antibacterials excessive?
What drove us to view bacteria as the enemy in the first place? Gulia recalls the tuberculosis outbreak in Europe 150 years ago, when the public first took notice of bacteria as "bad, dangerous and most worryingly invisible.” Cautious regulations soon became social norms, like not spitting on the street, kissing was discouraged and limited to “the erotically unavoidable” - and to think that bathing was not a social norm until the last 100 years!
We hear of flu viruses and epidemics from one year to the next, an E-coli outbreak here and a new strand of bird flu there. Unrelated to food, the ZIKA virus and SARS prevention kit all leave us shuddering at the thought of micro organisms and their likes.
Of course, these are good reasons to be careful and aware of their negative effects. However, Gulia differentiates between well-advised caution and excessive hygiene. Often, with the best intentions at heart, we come across one or two bad eggs and get rid of the whole lot, the good with the bad. We feel compelled to do away with all of them - better safe than sorry as they say.
Recent scientific knowledge though has come to encourage something called colonisation resistance. Colonisation resistance is just as it sounds. In nurturing a colony of beneficial bacteria, we prevent the harmful bacteria from colonising the same territory - it being that the overpopulation of bad bacteria is what causes harm to our wellbeing. The presence of some not-so-nice organisms is taken as a fact of life, even life-enhancing as our immune system trains itself in small doses of exposure to combat them. Without a community of good bacteria already established, on ground 0, it is easier for bad ones to take over.
Colonisation resistance happens both inside and outside our bodies. As such, every time we use disinfectants we create a breeding ground for all sorts of organisms. The same goes for antibiotics and out gut. In cases of serious contamination and infections, these tools are often crucial for our health and safety - this fact is not disputed. However, in everyday hygiene it is now seen to be inappropriate - we now know that more than 95% of the world’s bacteria are harmless to humans.
So what is suggested instead?
Gulia in GUT points to the 4 ways we can easily keep the microbe population in check:
- Dilution - the simple acts of washing fruits and vegetables (maybe wish a little added vinegar as Koreans prefer), and airing in a room.
- Drying - examples include how we preserve food like pasta, muesli, beans and meat; antiperspirant deodorant
- Temperature - a fridge kept below 5C; damp kitchen cloths and sick people’s clothes to be washed at or above 60C
- Cleaning - meaning, the removal of a film of fat and proteins from surfaces. Any bacteria living in it will be removed along with the film. We do this with water and cleaning fluid, in washing surfaces, our hands and showering.
So I guess it's time to throw the soap out with the bathwater.
Gulia Enders is a two-time scholarship winner of the Wilhelm Und Else Heroes Foundation, and is doing research for her medical doctorate at the Institute of Microbiology in Frankfurt, Germany. In 2012, her presentation of Gut won her first prize at the Science Slam in Berlin, and went viral on Youtube.
Say Goodbye to Antibacterial Soaps: Why the FDA is banning a household item
Harvard University, The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Blog