Antibacterial Cleaners

Antibacterial cleaners, learn the facts about these household products.

We all want our homes clean, right? But how clean is clean enough? Is there such a thing as a house that is too clean?

Starting around 1997, American consumers were introduced to the newest defenses in our ongoing war against germs: antibacterial cleaners. The first antibacterial products were kitchen and bathroom cleaners, all of them promising to make our kitchens and bathrooms virtually germ-free. One cleaner promises destruction of 99.9% of bacteria in your bathroom.

The kitchen and bathroom cleaners were quickly followed by antibacterial hand soaps and lotions, dishwashing liquids, body washes, window cleaners, and just about all other types of cleaner used in the home. Today, in addition to all of the antibacterial cleaning products on the market, some companies have begun to impregnate the plastic used to make cutting boards, toothbrushes, and children's toys with an antibacterial agent.

With the multitude of antibacterial cleaning products on the market, and an estimated one-half of all soap in the United States containing antibacterial ingredients, it's not hard to imagine a virtually sterile environment in which to live and raise our families. But is living in a sterile home really what's best for us?

Fifty years ago, penicillin was the world's newest wonder drug, an antibiotic used to treat Streptococcus infections. Among other illnesses, Streptococcus is the bacterium that causes strep throat. Penicillin worked great at wiping out these infections, until the Streptococcus bacteria mutated and became resistant to treatment by penicillin. New and stronger antibiotics were developed, and those too, worked to treat strep infections until, once again, the bacteria became resistant. Streptococcus is just one example of many bacteria resistant to some antibiotics.

In June of 2000, the World Health Organization warned that antibacterial products directly contribute to the rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The American Medical Association (AMA) says "(bacterial) resistance ascribed to overuse of antibiotics is a growing problem, and there is concern that some types of infections will eventually not be treatable with antibiotics". On June 13, 2000, the AMA advised consumers to avoid extensive use of "antibacterial soaps, lotions, and other household products". The AMA has also urged the Food and Drug Administration to increase regulation of antibacterial products.

So, on one side, we have the advertisements for antibacterial cleaners telling us that killing 99.9% of germs in our homes is a good thing. On the other side, we have the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association telling us that use of antibacterial products might NOT be such a good thing. For the millions of Americans who just want a clean home, whether to use, or not use, antibacterial cleaners can be a confusing decision to make.

According to most experts, the following guidelines are your best bet for keeping your home clean and your family safe, while avoiding the risks associated with antibacterial cleaners:

*Wash your hands thoroughly, and often.

*Limit your use of antibacterial products.

*Use bleach to clean your bathroom.

*Plain old soap and hot water remain the best ingredients to wash your hands, body, and dishes.

*Use separate cutting boards for raw meat and foods such as fruits and vegetables that may not be cooked before eating.

*Wash all fruits and vegetables, either in soapy water (rinse THOROUGHLY), or in one of the new fruit and vegetable washes.

*Wash all kitchen surfaces, dishes, and utensils in hot, soapy water. Make sure you rinse thoroughly. If possible, put everything (including cutting boards) in the dishwasher.

*Every time you run your dishwasher, throw your kitchen sponge in.

*Don't wipe your counters with a sponge that's been sitting on your sink. This can deposit even more bacteria on your countertops. Damp sponges are an excellent breeding ground for bacteria. Use paper towels, or replace your dishrag every day with a clean one.

New parents and parents-to-be worry about bacteria and viruses making their little one(s) sick. While this is certainly a concern, especially when there is a newborn in the home, it's important to remember that a sterile environment is NOT in the baby's best interest. Why?

Bacteria and viruses are present in our homes, at our work, anywhere and everywhere we go. What prevents us from getting sick from these bacteria and viruses? Antibodies. Our bodies make antibodies in response to exposure to bacteria and viruses. Chickenpox is an excellent example. Chickenpox is a common childhood illness. When we contract the virus that causes chickenpox, our bodies make antibodies to fight the illness. Those antibodies stick with us (antibodies for some viruses and bacteria, such as chickenpox, last for a lifetime), and prevent us from getting sick again from the same virus. However, there are viruses out there (like the virus that causes the common cold) that change their genetic composition on a regular basis. This means that the antibodies we made for last month's cold may not necessarily work on this month's cold! If there were no exposure to bacteria and viruses, how would we make antibodies? Babies who are exposed to bacteria and viruses at an early age make antibodies more quickly than those babies who are kept in virtually sterile environments do. Some illnesses (such as chickenpox), while relatively minor in children, can be very serious in adults. Those children that are exposed to the chickenpox virus at an early age are less likely to have complications from the illness than those exposed later in life. While your instinct may be to scrub your house from top to bottom with every antibacterial product you can find in order to make your home as germ-free as possible, remember that germs are crucial for development of baby's immune system.

Are germs bad? Some bacteria and viruses cause illness in humans, and some maintain bacterial harmony in our bodies. Some bacteria and viruses are neutral to humans, causing neither illness nor benefit. Are antibacterial cleaners bad? Not necessarily. When used in moderation, antibacterial cleaners can help you keep your home clean. Limit your use of antibacterial products to one or two products. For instance, use an antibacterial spray for your doorknobs, and a bottle of antibacterial hand cleaner for outings. Clean the rest of your house with bleach and/or regular cleaners. Use caution when exposing yourself and your children to unknown environments, but don't limit outings due to fear of infection and illness. Don't try to create a sterile environment for yourself and your family. In addition to the potential for antibiotic-resistant bacteria, it's a virtually impossible task, and you may just be lulled into a false sense of security. That one square inch on your kitchen counter you missed with your bottle of antibacterial kitchen spray could contain literally millions of bacteria! Instead of spending the entire day trying to annihilate every last germ, take your kids to the zoo, or go for a walk. Get yourself an ice cream cone with the money you would have spent on every antibacterial product you saw in the cleaning aisle at your grocery store. Keep your house clean, but above all else, have fun and enjoy life!

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