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Can you be too clean?

Visit a pharmacy or grocery store and you’re sure to notice cleaning and personal care products labelled “antibacterial.” These soaps, gels, wipes and other items have become increasingly popular in recent years. It’s tempting to wipe down everything you touch, from monkey bars to grocery carts. But do we really need to use antibacterial items to stay healthy? Are there any health risks to being “too clean”?

To find out the answers to these questions, it’s important to understand a few facts about bacteria.

Bacteria are not all harmful.

The idea that all bacteria are bad for us has been around for a while, but it’s simply not true, says Dr. Christine Dupont, a lecturer and biology teaching fellow at the University of Waterloo. “We absolutely need bacteria for our good health.”

Bacteria offer specific benefits to our bodies.

Bacteria break down food and produce vitamins in our guts. They also coat our skin and protect us from attacks from harmful microbes.

Bacteria do not cause colds or flus.

These common ailments are actually caused by viruses. This means antibacterial soaps and other products do not offer more effective protection against colds or flus. You are better off simply washing with plain soap and water.

Bacteria play a vital role in developing children’s immune systems.

There is proven evidence that when young children are exposed to good bacteria early in life (through playing outside and breastfeeding, for example), the buildup of bad bacteria decreases. Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine has shown that children who are sheltered from bacteria have a higher chance of developing asthma and allergies.

The most common ingredient in antibacterial products such as hand soap is a chemical compound called triclosan. It was originally developed to use only in hospitals and similar healthcare settings. Today, triclosan can be found not just in soaps, gels and wipes but also in household items such as cutting boards, toothpaste, mattress pads, toys and even clothing.

What happens to our bodies in the long term when they are repeatedly exposed to multiple antibacterial products? There is a growing body of research that links frequent exposure to these products to the development of bacterial resistance. The US Food and Drug Administration is concerned enough about these findings to have issued a ban last fall against antibacterial products being marketed in that country. At this point, Health Canada has not followed suit and does not currently support the idea that using these products leads to antibacterial resistance or other serious health concerns. Health Canada does, however, advise that antibacterial products be used sparingly.

In other words, we don’t need antibacterial products to stay healthy, and there are risks to using products designed to eliminate bacteria from our everyday lives. Those risks are especially pronounced when it comes to children.

“Bacteria are not the enemy,” says Dr. Stuart Turvey, a pediatric immunologist at BC Children’s Hospital and associate professor of pediatrics at the University of British Columbia. “We need to allow kids to be exposed to a variety of environments.”

So go ahead – ditch the hand sanitizer and go play in the mud!

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