The dirt on clean: avoiding antibacterials

Reaching for plain soap is the best way to wash hands and avoid spreading disease, says Dr. Henry. (CBC)

Reaching for plain soap is the best way to wash hands and avoid spreading disease, says Dr. Henry. (CBC)

With all the talk about swine flu and handwashing, I decided to take questions from parents to an expert in public health, Dr. Bonnie Henry with the B.C. Centre for Disease Control. (CBC story here).

Dr. Henry just published a book on preventing disease spread, called Soap and Water & Common Sense, and has been on the front lines of media-messaging around the swine flu virus.

The piece of advice that’s yielded the most discussion online, and in our newsroom, is about avoiding antibacterial soaps with ingredients like triclosan. As Dr. Henry noted, they can lead to drug-resistant strains, and do nothing against viruses like the flu.

Pros and Antis

I’ve seen two camps of reaction: people who are surprised antibacterials are considered harmful, and people who have known that for years and are surprised anyone is surprised. (As a recent post on yoyomama notes, triclosan was one of the chemicals the authors of Slow Death By Rubber Duck loaded their systems with.)

Dr. Bonnie Henry says ad campaigns are adding to confusion:

People think that having ‘antibacterial’ on it means it’s more healthful and it’s going to protect myself and my family. And they honestly believe that because of the advertising. When in reality it may cause harm, and it’s certainly not needed.”

I’m happy to hear a prominent health official talk about this. I’ve long avoided antibacterials, not because I’d researched them carefully, but because past biology-student roommates had ranted about their damaging effects on the environment.

It was an easy decision because I’m not remotely germophobic. But it’s nice to see what’s good for human and environmental health aligning once again.

More of the doctor’s advice after the jump.

Dr. Henry also recommends:

  • Soap and water (and time to scrub) are the best tools for handwashing
  • Warm or cold water are both fine
  • Avoid antibacterial soap, including the ingredient triclosan
  • Dry your hands with paper towel, hand dryer or air before touching anything
  • Hand sanitizers don’t work as well as handwashing, but can help if you don’t have access to soap and water, provided they are 60-90% alcohol

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