There are all sorts of recommendations out there telling us when to wash our hands: before we eat, before we cook, after we shake hands, after touching something that has been touched by someone else – it seems that we as a society are simple washing too much. Others don’t leave the house without anti-bacterial gel or spray and classrooms often contain a near-chemical bath of soaps and germ-killers. But in all of this hype of being germ-free, are we actually harming our health? Research says yes, and the issue is today known as the hygiene hypothesis.
The Hygiene Hypothesis – Can You be too Clean?
A study looked at the effects of BPA and a soap-agent called triclosan found both actually suppressed the immune system of adults.
Bisphenol A (BPA) is not new to controversy. The chemical was recently banned by the FDA for inclusion in baby bottles, but it remains in plastic food containers and in the linings of some canned foods. Among other things, it stands accused of disrupting hormones, increasing risk of diabetes and cancer, and negatively affecting the immune system.
See here for the latest news on BPA: NaturalSociety
But triclosan is something that we don’t hear of often.
Triclosan is found in cleaning agents and soap, often those touting an anti-bacterial label. It is added to reduce bacterial contamination, but while the FDA says the substance is not currently considered hazardous, they admit that some valuable studies have linked it with several different problems.
Young people, aged 18 and younger, who were exposed to higher levels of the chemical were found to be more likely to have hay fever and allergies.
According to the study’s co-author, “The triclosan findings in the younger age groups may support the hygiene hypothesis which maintains that living in very clean and hygienic environments may impact our exposure to micro-organisms that are beneficial for development of the immune system.”
The immune system learns how to fight illness and disease by being exposed to it; it then builds defenses. When we don’t allow our immune systems to have any exposure to these micro-organisms, it doesn’t know how to fight them—leaving us vulnerable.
Additional studies have also linked triclosan to hormone regulation disruption, potentially suppressing thyroid function and reducing testosterone levels. It is also said to “amplify the effects of sex hormones such as estrogen and testosterone,” potentially increasing the risks of breast and prostate tumors.
Further supporting the hygiene hypothesis, in a research project entitled the Human Microbiome Project, researchers show that bacteria and microbial bodies are actually much more beneficial than they will ever be detrimental. Not only do bacteria keep people alive and healthful by helping to strengthen the immune system, but they also explain in a broad sense why people are so different when it comes to vaccinations and diseases.
While no one wants to contract the common cold or flu, and we all like clean hands, washing with regular soap and water will do the trick, though buying organic consumer products is the best way to avoid all harmful chemicals. Research has shown that those listed as “anti-bacterial” (frequently containing triclosan) are no more effective than regular soap and water and may be much more dangerous.