Drop that Bleach! The Wasteful Side Effects of the War on Bacteria

War cannot be won.

I’m not advocating anything dangerous here, just old-fashioned common sense—and practices. We are too clean and so are our homes. And that germaphobia has created a market—or the market has created germaphobia—for all sorts of wasteful products.

I’m not advocating you never bathe. However, this MIT chemical engineer hasn’t showered since 2003 and instead mists daily with a probiotic spray. Apparently he smells and looks clean. How? Scientists hypothesize that nitrosomonas eutropha, an ammonia-oxidizing bacteria in the spray, at one time colonized our skin “before we started washing it away with soap and shampoo” and that it acted “as a built-in cleanser, deodorant, anti-inflammatory and immune booster by feeding on the ammonia in our sweat and converting it into nitrite and nitric oxide.” In our war on bad bacteria, the good become collateral damage.

I’m also not advocating that we all stop cleaning our homes and wallow in filth, but rather, to reconsider how we clean our homes.

Cut the products below and you’ll save money, reduce your waste and come into contact with more microbes that can boost your immunity.

1. Antibacterial soap

In 2016, the FDA announced it would ban 19 chemicals found in consumer antibacterial soaps—not in soaps used in hospitals and food service. Animal studies have shown that triclosan, one of these banned ingredients “alters the way some hormones work in the body and raises potential concerns for the effects of use in humans.” In addition, “laboratory studies have raised the possibility that triclosan contributes to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics.”

Phew! The FDA took action. But when I searched for antibacterial soap just now, a bunch of products came up, products with different antibacterial agents.

According to Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Science blog,

[T]here has been no conclusive evidence to suggest household antibacterial soaps are an improvement over non-antibacterial soaps. In fact, one study found it didn’t matter whether a household used plain or antibacterial soap containing triclocarban, a compound that is closely related to triclosan and is a part of the FDA ban: both cut the incidence of childhood pneumonia and diarrhea in half.”

And many of these antibacterial soaps come in the form of…

2. Liquid soap

People like bottled liquid soap for a couple of reasons: 1) it doesn’t gunk up the sink with sticky soap chunks like bar soap does and 2) they often assume that if several people use the same bar of soap, it will become infested with germs that may kill them.

But according to this recent article in the New York Times, a communal bar of soap doesn’t transmit infections. The article refers to a few studies, including a rigorous 1965 one which found that “The level of bacteria that may occur on bar soap, even under extreme usage conditions (heavy usage, poorly designed non-drainable soap dishes, etc.) does not constitute a health hazard.”

If you use liquid soap currently and want to reduce your plastic footprint, you’ll find switching to bar soap pretty painless. (The organic terrycloth soap saver pictured below came from Aquarian Bath.)

Bar soap, bar soap bits and an organic terrycloth soap saver

3. Harsh cleaning products

Disinfecting spray, toilet pucks with bleach, surface cleaners with bleach, disinfecting wipes—both the products themselves and their packaging generate a ton of waste. Yes, you need to clean your home but you do not need to render it, as Stanford researchers Justin and Erica Sonnenburg put it, “as sterile as an operating room.” In their fascinating book, The Good Gut, these pioneers into gut research recommend using less toxic ingredients to clean our homes, ingredients such as vinegar, castile soap and lemon juice. I clean with vinegar I make from fruit scraps, kombucha I ferment to the point of vinegar and baking soda. Sometimes pulverized egg shells too. (Read my review of The Good Gut here.)

But what if your child’s pacifier falls on a dirty floor? Shouldn’t you at least sterilize that? Funny you should ask.

A study of parents who licked pacifiers clean that had fallen on the ground versus parents who washed the pacifiers showed that the children who had the licked ones popped back into their mouths developed fewer allergies and less eczema.

4. Plastic produce bags

Yes, mostly, shoppers use these because carrying a pound of loose pearl onions up to the cashier in our hands proves difficult. We need a bag. However some people use plastic produce bags for one apple. I’m sure you’ve seen this. My younger daughter works as a cashier at a grocery store and she tells me that people put all sorts of stuff into plastic produce bags, like single blocks of cheese—already wrapped in plastic. People tend to do this out of a fear of germs. Several hands have handled their cheese already. Not that that’s so terrible. But in the mind of the person bagging a block of cheese it is.

I’ve also heard health concerns about reusable cloth produce bags. People worry they harbor deadly bacteria. Unless they have berry juice on them or lots of dirt, I wash my produce bags after I’ve used them several times and have lived to tell the tale. (I make these cloth bags.)

5. Silly laws

You have no direct control over silly laws but I wanted to include them in this list.

Many readers have told me that the grocery stores in their area will not allow them to use their own clean containers to fill up with bulk foods, prepared foods, cheese and so on, and that employees waiting on them cite health and safety laws when denying completely reasonable requests to put a sandwich in a tin. Governments and businesses must ease restrictions such as these.

What requires more restrictions? Single-use plastic. Corporations won’t cut back on producing the stuff until forced to. Plastic pollution’s assault on the planet also requires consumers to take action and refuse buying the stuff. Part of that action includes a more relaxed attitude toward germs.

15 Replies to “Drop that Bleach! The Wasteful Side Effects of the War on Bacteria”

  1. I couldn’t agree more that we need restrictions on single use plastic. I live in Australia where the big super markets like Woolworths and Coles finally introduced a ban on single use plastic bags ( mind you only the ones at the cash registers, not the produce bags at the veg and fruit). However Coles just did a big backflip handing out ‘re-usable’ thicker plastic bags for free to ‘ make the transition easier for their customers’…. outrageous really considering that customer research shows that 75% think the ban of single use plastic bags is good and are in support of it. Who is listening to the people?

  2. I refuse to buy anti bacterial soap and recently stopped buying liquid soap (even though my kids prefer it). Its now bars of soap for all of us! I clean with vinegar and water and will check out how YOU make vinegar from fruit scraps (because I’m tired of buying huge plastic bottles of vinegar!). And I’ve eliminated plastic bags, too! I’m glad my local food co-op lets us bring our own containers. Here’s a 5-minute video I made entitled 6 Tips to Avoid Plastic Bags. Over 9,000 hits on YouTube! https://youtu.be/qHI6IiP7WDI

    1. Lori, I am starting to really enjoy using bar soap…so many lovely kinds like milk soap or even good old Yardleys with shea butter. (And bonus points it comes in a paper wrapper!)

  3. Ah yes I absolutely agree with you! Most of our cleaning at home is simply done with fresh water and the occasional bit of cleaner where needed. Most of the time things just need a wipe down, and I love vinegar and baking soda for the annual clean of the built up gunk in my washing machine. You can’t build up immunity if not exposed to germs. I hate the idea of releasing so many chemicals into our water systems and really limit how much product I use. I am only just starting my journey to reduce waste but I’ve always used about half of the recommended amount and it’s always been plenty to get the job done!

  4. Hear hear! I remember in microbiology class learning how soap washes germs away. In the OR, surgeons scrub really well but not with triclosan (unless things have changed since I was last in an OR which would be about 10 years ago). And do people not know how quickly those germs re-colonize surfaces anyway??

    PS – those produce bags are GORGEOUS – I love the chintz print.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks Dr. Snarr :p

  5. The silly laws made me think of an experience I had recently. My husband and I have been going to the movies a lot (we have movie pass). We never get snacks there but one morning, I thought we should get some soda. I had a little craving and it supports our local theater. We brought in our reusable cup. The manager actually told us we could get water with our reusable cup but he would not allow us to pay $5 to fill it with soda (we had to get a single use cup). His reasoning was if he let us do it then others might think it’s okay to bring in their own cups. Seriously? We got water which was perfectly fine with us.

    I did want to say that my small community has a grassroots movement to discourage restaurants from providing plastic straws. It’s not a law but many are moving to paper or other alternatives. We try hard not to use straws and I wish more would just ask if we want one instead of just providing one. Our favorite bar used to give 2 thin straws for every drink, now they give really cool paper straws but they know we are strawless (and only use reusable glasses).

  6. Well said.

  7. Yvonne Bourque says: Reply

    Sometimes there are no such laws but stores say there are. Here in Quebec, they explained the law on TV because of the confusion created by all the various “ laws” people are told at the stores. In Quebec, a store is not obliged to use plastic or refuse a customer’s container but a store must abide by the government’s cleanliness laws. However, a store, being a private business, has the right to refuse a customer’s container if they don’t want to deal with said container.

  8. Very well said. I am a biochemist by training and know that the immune system is largely a ‘learned’ system – you can’t build immunity to something that you have not come across. That is how vaccination works – a disabled virus is injected so that your immune system can build antibodies.
    I have long felt that this phobia about bugs and the horrendous chemicals that we spray around our homes, rather than being a preventative measure, has a lot to do with illness and allergies.
    I am particularly delighted with your findings about bars of soap. I have worried that they are unhygienic. I can now free myself of my guilty secret – liquid soap dispensers!

  9. Good researched article. Thanks for sharing

  10. Hydrogen Peroxide in a spray bottle is like a cheap, less toxic smelling version of Scrubbing Bubbles for when you want to get the nooks and crannies in the shower clean.

  11. I’m with the person who stopped showering. I stopped about 3 years ago. I do wash daily with my handmade soap.I don’t believe I smell any different.
    I was reading last week that superbugs are now resistant to the liquid hand cleaner that is used in hospitals

    I do all the other things you mentioned.

  12. I avoid antibacterial products, because using them makes the bacteria resistant to them, then the active ingredients do not work when they are needed- when there is a harmful bacteria around. Most bacteria are not harmful, many are helpful to us, so let’s not get rid of all of them.

  13. Good info – nice to see some scientific studies cited 🙂

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