With the huge anti-bacterial push in marketing these days, the subject of germs is taking up as much space in our adult minds as it did back in the 4th grade, when getting the classroom dirt bag’s cooties on you was about the worst thing that could happen.
As a child who grew up in a largely unsanitized environment, where the cat regularly relieved herself in the family sandbox, I find myself wondering if the proliferation of germ phobias in our culture isn’t a bit of a manufactured marketing ploy.
Anti-bacterial soap used to be a substance found largely in hospitals. Now, it is uncommon for a household not to have some cleaning products that claim to have anti-bacterial properties. The more extremely hygienic households can choose from a host of anti-bacterial products: cleaning sprays, air fresheners, carpet fresheners, dental products, sponges, paper towels.
An additional side effect of the anti-bacterial craze is the leap in disposable products sending us back to 1970s-style waste that we thought the recycling craze of the past 20 years had at least diminished. No one wants to keep a cleaning tool around for a second use for fear that the evil bacteria it was said to have killed the first round decide to stick around for a second go at your health.
In order to talk about germs and their potential risk to your physical and mental health, let’s first define the enemy. “Germ” is a general term for microbes that exist in our environment and bodies all the time. There are four types: bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa. The germs we most likely have in mind on our neurotic killing sprees are bacteria and viruses.
Bacteria are single-cell organisms that can live anywhere, as long as they are getting nutrients to stay alive. They can live in the body, on food, or on pretty much any surface. Not all bacteria are bad, however. You have bacteria living in your intestines all the time that are integral to your digestive process. Bad bacteria can make you sick with pneumonia or strep throat, but can be treated with antibiotics.
Viruses are different from bacteria in that they cannot live for very long outside of a host body (a person or an animal for instance). They need to feed off of living cells to stay alive and reproduce. The most common types of viruses are cold and flu viruses, and they are contagious because they can spread from one host body to another. Antibiotics do not help your body fight viruses, so don’t bother going to your doctor for a cold. In the same vein, anti-bacterial soaps are not going to give you more of an edge killing viruses.
Fungi and protozoa are less commonly discussed germs, as we are not as adversely affected by them. Fungi can cause the occasional athlete’s foot or skin irritation, but they require a warm, moist environment to stay alive (this is why they are so prevalent in those humid, steamy gym change rooms). Protozoa is a microbe that is usually found in the water supply. If you have ever gone on a holiday where they advise you, “Don’t drink the water,” protozoa are probably the reason.
War on Germs
So, no one likes the thought of millions of germs potentially crawling all over their homes and bodies. That is natural. If you really think about it, it sounds like a particularly grotesque scene in a B-horror flick. The problem is that people have been thinking about it too much. If you ask any doctor, the secret to managing germs in your environment is proper hygiene, not all-out warfare. While human beings (especially North Americans) tend to believe that all-out warfare is always better “just to be safe,” going overboard fighting germs can work against your goals.
While anti-bacterial soaps and cleaners do indeed kill bacteria, it may not be targeting the worst bacteria in the manner in which you hoped it might. In our environment, there is a natural balance of bacteria. Some is weaker and therefore the risk of it hurting us is negligible.
The problem is that, as is the rule of nature, when a poison is introduced into an environment, it is going to attack the weakest organisms first. The role of these weak bacteria is to compete with pathogenic bacteria, keeping it at bay. The result is that your anti-bacterial cleansers are likely killing off the weakest, and therefore more benign, bacteria, allowing the more virulent strains to flourish.
If that weren’t bad enough, the strong bacteria not only live on; they have now been exposed to anti-bacterial poison and have survived. Compare this process to an important human analogy: to immunize humans against disease, a vaccination containing a weakened version of that disease is introduced to the body so our body recognizes it and builds up immunity. Following that, whatever doesn’t kill the bacteria doesn’t only make it stronger, it helps it build immunity against the next dose.
If we were to carry that analogy back around, the more benign or weak bacteria in your environment, the better chance your body has building up natural immunity to its ill effects.
This article is not meant to be an all-out attack on cleanliness and sanitary living. Of course we need to keep our homes and bodies clean and relatively free of germs in order to live a healthy life. We all know that our hands, being our primary contact with the surfaces in our world, are the primary conductors of germs form the outside world to the inside world of our bodies.
Washing your hands is the most important thing you can do to keep healthy. Wash them in warm water, making sure you work up a good lather (10 seconds or more). Always wash your hands after you go to the washroom or change a diaper. Washing your hands when you change environments, like when you get home from work or after working in the yard, helps keep outside germs out of your home.
Proper food handling is the second most important strategy to keeping harmful germs out of your body. Wash your hands before and after preparing food. When working with meat, do not defrost it overnight at room temperature. Defrost it in the fridge or in the microwave. Always use separate utensils and cutting boards for your meats and other dinner ingredients. Make sure you wash all foods well before using them, especially fruit and vegetables (even those ones in a skin that you peel, like cantaloupe or oranges).
To sanitize your surfaces, it is safer to use bleach (even laundry detergent with bleach), denatured alcohol or hydrogen peroxide than anti-bacterial cleaners. The anti-bacterial ingredients cling to surfaces, giving bacteria time to develop resistance, while bleach and alcohol evaporate cleanly away.
It is simple to let marketing ploys build insecurities and neuroses. At a basic level, that is their job: to convince us that we cannot live without a product we hadn’t even heard of until that moment. When it builds in us neuroses that change the quality of our lives, we have to remember to take a moment and ask ourselves: was life so bad without these products?