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The Dangers of Hand Washing

“Wash Your Hands!” is the battle cry of the current time. This is generally good advice. When we’re out and about, we are smeared and sprayed with all manner of “sanitizer” for the privilege of entering an establishment. Some of this is just alcohol, which is harsh enough on the skin, while other solutions are said to smell of rotting vegetation (or worse). Just what is inside this stuff?

Photo: Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

While many hand sanitizers contain alcohol (60% is the minimum to be effective), the ingredients in others make a toxic chemical soup, especially if they proclaim loudly that they are alcohol free. One of these ingredients could be triclosan. This has been the main ingredient in anti-bacterial soaps until recently. Indications are that the rules around this particular chemical are as slippery as the soap itself. So, although it is officially banned, it’s still around.

In 2017, the FDA declared that triclosan was not generally recognized as safe or effective in antiseptic products made for use in health care settings. It was also banned for use in over the counter products.

In Canada, triclosan was added in June 2018 to Schedule 1 of the Environmental Protection Act on recommendation of both the Ministers of Environment and of Health. Schedule 1 is the toxic substances list.

What is Triclosan?

The order statement reads: “Triclosan is a synthetic organic chemical used as an antibacterial agent and preservative in a range of products used by consumers to stop the growth of bacteria, fungi, and mildew, and to prevent odours (e.g. skin cleansers, moisturizers, deodorants, cleaning products and toothpastes). Triclosan was used in pest control products, but such a use is no longer registered in Canada.”1

The addition of triclosan is restricted to a concentration of 0.03% in mouthwashes and 0.3% in other cosmetic products, such as anti-bacterial soaps. These are in line with other international jurisdictions, such as the EU and Australia. At these levels triclosan is thought to be safe, but it did hit the Dirty Dozen list for the David Suzuki Foundation.

Let’s take a closer look at this pesticide/preservative/antibacterial agent. One of the problems with triclosan is that it does not degrade, so it persists both in the body and the environment. It is also used in so many products that it will easily accumulate in the body, even though the concentrations in each product are at an “acceptable” level.

More worrying still is the possibility that it is adding to global anti-bacterial resistance, both in our bodies and in nature, leading to antibiotic resistance. Diseases we’ve gloated about eliminating are now re-emerging in brand-spanking new antibiotic-resistant forms.

What’s so Bad About Triclosan?

First, it has been deemed very toxic to aquatic species, so we’re killing life in our water ways. This includes plants, beneficial bugs and swimmers of all sorts. It is being detected in our fresh waters and streams, in the fish we eat and the vegetables that are irrigated. Even when the water has been treated before spraying on fields, the triclosan persists.

Triclosan is also a suspected endocrine disruptor, meaning that it interferes with hormone function in humans. Our hormones serve to regulate many body functions, so think way beyond estrogen or testosterone. Endocrine disruptors are linked with developmental and reproductive disorders (birth defects), brain and nerve disorders, and cancerous tumours. (There is a short list here of other endocrine disruptors.)

But the kicker, during these uncertain pandemic times, is that it is harmful to the immune system. Harmful to the immune system. Well, that’s just great.

Food or Drug?

Used in cosmetics (soap, shampoo, moisturizers, etc), it falls under the Food and Drug administration, so is subject to cosmetic regulation (for safety). Within this definition, substances can be added to the Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist. This is a list of ingredients that are prohibited for use in cosmetic products because they are so toxic.

But if triclosan is added to something like a hand sanitizer, the product is usually making a therapeutic claim (e.g. germ killing). It is then classified as a “drug”, and is therefore exempt from such restrictions. So, any product that is allowed to make a therapeutic or functional claim about your health can potentially contain ingredients more dangerous than would be allowed in a body wash or first aid preparation.

This is fine, we imagine, if it is in the hands of a knowledgeable doctor telling us how to use it. But when those guys at the restaurant or bookshop are spraying it on me, often before I can refuse my consent to be so sprayed, it’s a little different.

What to do?

hand washing is best
Photo: Matthew Henry on Burst

First, check all of your products for triclosan, including toothpaste, mouthwash, any anti-bacterial product – especially hand soap, but also deodorants and antiperspirants, hand lotions and cosmetics, plastic kitchen ware or office products, and any fabric boasting of anti-bacterial properties (shoe inserts, etc). Though officially banned, it is still sneaking into products that are not deemed “cosmetic”.

Next, stop using anti-bacterial soap and dish washing liquid. Please. These are perhaps the two things we would buy most consciously, thinking we are doing good for our health and our family. But adding endocrine disruptors to our daily cleaning routine is not worth the risk of harming our immune system.

Wash with plain soap and water, and do your dishes in a detergent or natural product. Chemical residues are entering your body by mouth and through the skin. Normal soap and detergent are enough to disrupt the cell surface of a virus, so that it dies during the cleaning process. Extra killing power is not required.

Once you’ve come home, wash your hands and then stop sanitizing. It’s enough to wash the world off when you enter. Once you’ve cleaned your home, the virus will not sneak in through the windows. Just have everyone wash their hands as soon as they get home. Guests these days will likely welcome the opportunity to wash their hands when they come to you.

I’ve thrown out my hand towels and have adopted the practice of the “single use towel”, so I have a bazillion washcloths for people to dry their hands on, using each only once. I’ve done this for 15 years in my massage practice, so I thought I would extend it to my daily life, especially for my guests’ peace of mind. (For a family, you could have one per person per day or some such…)

Finally, watch for germ-killing, plaque-removing toothpastes, and check the ingredients on these. It’s enough to brush with something that doesn’t make wild claims about killing everything in sight. There are enzymes in the mouth that not only begin the digestive process but act as part of our immune system. Enzymes resemble simple bacterial shapes so too much killing can take out these guys too.

There are marvelous artisan soaps available these days, made by people who devote themselves to natural ingredients, making art from the humdrum needs of life.

In Ontario, Canada, you could try the following:

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