Evolution Awesomeness Series #2: The Antibacterial Lie

Warning: This post is less about the awesomeness of evolution than it is about the evils of antibacterial chemicals. Sorry, but when you run your own blog, you get to be as biased as you want.

I guess that’s not fair, I shouldn’t be biased; I should just present the info and let you make your own decisions. And I’ll start doing that. Right after this post.

from LadyofHats, Wiki

In my post about the basics of evolution, I mentioned how species that have an extremely high reproductive rate evolve faster than others. Hellooo, bacteria. Unless you live under a rock (which I do, and I still know), you’ve heard about the issue with the overuse of antibiotics and antibacterial chemicals. Essentially, because bacteria can evolve so damn fast, the fact that humans get put on antibiotics whenever they have a sniffle means that bacteria are becoming more and more resistant to those same antibiotics.

Now, this isn’t a post about the evils of antibiotics. Antibiotics are one of the greatest medical advancements known to man. The problem is that when we abuse them, we’re making it easier for bacteria to get stronger and more dangerous. Big deal, you say? Well, let me introduce you to my friend, leprosy. And here’s pneumonia. Staph. Oh, and don’t forget The Plague! (To be fair, the plague was actually caused be several different bacteria. But the point stands.)

Perhaps I’m being dramatic. What are the odds you’re going to get the plague? Slim. But what about Staph? That’s a different story – it’s easy enough to get, but getting harder to treat. By abusing antibiotics and antibacterial chemicals, we’re causing resistant bacteria like MRSA (short for Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or antibiotic resistant Staph) to become more prevalent; and germs like MRSA are a big deal. They can kill you.

I want you to read this next sentence slowly: In 2005, more people in the United States died from MRSA than AIDS.

Part of the blame goes to the medical system: some doctors give out prescriptions for antibiotics when people have colds and the flu. Both are caused by viruses, which don’t respond to antibiotics. But because we go in there whining about our runny noses and interrupted lives, docs hand them out to make us feel better and prevent secondary infections (which tend to be bacterial).

So you haven’t taken any antibiotics in a while? Good for you. But that’s not the end of it.

The producers of antibacterial chemicals (like triclosan and triclocarbon) and antibacterial products would have you believe that being concerned about all this bacteria-resistance is silly. However, it appears that tric & tric can contribute to resistance, especially when these chemicals are in millions of home worldwide. Apparently, it may also be a waste of money: a study supported by the FDA in 2005 showed that washing your hands with using a triclosan soap was no more effective than using regular soap. Why? Because it’s not about what’s in the soap – it’s about how you use the soap. Rubbing your soapy hands together for at least 20+ seconds lubricates the hell out of them, allowing most germs to slide off when you rinse. So people assume that because they’re using antibacterial soap, they can keep washing their hands for 4 seconds and something magical will happen.

Don’t use the antibacterial soap? Good for you! But we’re still not done.

The makers of antibacterial chemicals aren’t stupid. They’ve put triclosan in more than just your soap. It’s now in some toothpastes, shave gel, deodorant, children’s toys, sandals, socks, keyboards, lunchboxes, cutting boards, and more. Here’s a list to start with. And, for your convenience, some triclosan-free companies. Essentially, though, if you just refuse to use anything marketed as containing antibacterial properties, you’re probably safe. And if you’re not concerned enough, you should know that triclosan shows up in the urine of 75% of those tested – and there’s a fair chance it’s in your wife’s breast milk too, being pumped right into baby.

Okay, I know I’ve gone on and on, but I think this is important. Partly because there really is something you can do about it. Take all the antibacterial stuff out of your home and donate it to a thrift store, or toss it in the garbage – it is not helping you. In fact, I feel that it’s ensuring our grandkids are going to be dying from some pretty nasty bugs that a little foresight on our part could have prevented. Leave triclosan and other antibacterial substances in the hospitals where they belong.

Now, if you’re still grimacing because you’re an American consumer that has been convinced by the American media that you’re going to die tomorrow of the 8-trillion germs crawling all over your body right this very moment, there is hope yet.

Triclosan isn’t the only thing that kills bacteria. I found zero research saying anything negative about alcohol-based hand sanitizers, and in fact, that’s what I use more often than hand soap at work (around sneezing kids and animal poop). It’s important to note, however, that the alcohol needs to be in a high concentration to be effective, from 60%-95% (more here).

Also, natural essential oils like teatree and lemongrass are effective at killing bacteria. Orange oil also seems to be effective, according to the All-Knowing Internet, and orange oil has become a popular all-purpose cleaner for we hippie folk. Smells good, too. At work, we utilize good old vinegar in a spray bottle to wipe down counters.

So, in conclusion, I’m really not saying don’t worry about germs. If you’re anything like me, looking at photos of boils caused by MRSA is enough to send you naked into the bathtub with gallons of sanitizer. I’m saying, why bother taking the risk? I’m saying worry less, wash your hands for longer, and get rid of the needless chemicals.

Oh, and, um, bacteria evolve real fast.




Pass the word onto other parents, okay? This stuff is in your kids’ schools. And probably in their lunchboxes.

Beyond Pesticides is a great resource for info on triclosan (since the EPA says triclosan needs to be classified as a ‘pesticide’), like this Fact Sheet, and this Back to School Flyer.

Another good article here, aaand one here. Okay. I’m done. Seriously.


Posted on August 6, 2010, in Biology/Ecology, Connected Living and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Evolution Awesomeness Series #2: The Antibacterial Lie.

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