Have our bodies and environments become too clean? For decades, manufacturers of cleaning products and chemicals have scared people into enacting a household version of “germ warfare.” If you believe the advertising, no kitchen counter, floor or tub is really clean unless all germs have been annihilated with harsh chemicals.
These same companies also exhort people to over-clean themselves with toxic shampoos, soaps and body washes. Yet, daily bathing only became a practice with the relatively recent invention of indoor plumbing; over 100 years ago, many thought wetting the whole body at once instead of taking sponge baths was dangerous and would invite diseases like pneumonia.
The featured documentary, “Washing Away Health: Navigating Cleanliness, Wellness and Resistance in a Microbial World,” from Cleaner World Productions, explores the significant dangers of overcleaning our bodies and environments. These risks range from exposing ourselves to dermatological and respiratory side effects from cleaning products to disrupting our microbiomes and immune systems.
We Are Washing Away Health, Says Revealing Documentary
Excessive cleaning is becoming harmful to ourselves, our homes and our environment. That is the message “Washing Away Health” delivers. In it, experts detail the burgeoning microbial resistance triggered by our obsession with cleanliness, and the surprising health ramifications of being too clean.1
People who grow up on farms or live in developing countries don’t tend to have the food allergies, asthma or other “First World problems” we see in places that are overcleaning, says Laura Kahn, author of “One Health and the Politics of Antimicrobial Resistance,” who is featured in the video.
The reason may be found in the hygiene hypothesis. If a child is raised in an environment saturated in disinfectant soaps and cleansers, they may not able to build up resistance to disease through normal exposure to dirt and germs. This could explain why many allergies and immune-system diseases have doubled, tripled or even quadrupled in the past few decades — we have become too clean.
Not being exposed to microbes and pathogens can create an excessively clean immune system that can actually begin “attacking itself,” explains Kahn. Sarah Crawford, president of Bio Green Clean,2 a company that makes phosphate-, fume- and fragrance-free cleaning products, agrees, saying, “There is something to be said for ‘healthy germs’.”
Ads Mislead People Into Overcleaning
It is no coincidence that so many people overclean their homes with harmful products — the commercials are everywhere, says Alexandra Scranton, director of science and research at Women’s Voice for the Earth.
“Washing Away Health” shows examples of ads for Lysol and Mr. Clean cleaners that could make anyone think their home is teeming with germs, and that they’re negligent if they don’t use a harsh chemical onslaught. In actuality, soap and water are just as effective, the narrator points out.
Similar “fear marketing” was used to sell cleaning products with antibacterial agents, which the FDA has since banned from consumer soaps.3 Adding antibacterial agents to hand, body, dish and laundry soaps and other personal care products did not make them clean any better, but allowed manufacturers to charge more for “new and improved” items.
They tremendously worsened antibiotic resistance and, since soap is “by nature antibacterial” anyway — a point Kahn makes — antibacterial chemicals are redundant.
Consider triclosan, one of the antibacterial agents added to soap and found in Colgate’s Total toothpaste until recently.4 Triclosan not only contributes to the development of bacterial resistance, but also increases the amount of bisphenol-A (BPA) you absorb when handling thermal receipt paper or other BPA-containing products. According to PubChem, triclosan also has been detected in human breast milk. Additionally, triclosan:5
“… might cause spontaneous abortion; probably through inhibition of estrogen sulfotransferase activity to produce placental thrombosis …
In children, triclosan exposure was associated with allergic sensitization, especially inhalant and seasonal allergens, rather than food allergens. Current rhinitis was associated with the highest levels of triclosan, whereas no association was seen for current asthma.
In the North American bullfrog … exposure to low levels of triclosan thyroid hormone-associated gene expression and can alter the rate of thyroid hormone-mediated postembryonic development.”
According to research published in International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, triclosan has also been linked to a role in cancer development, possibly due to its estrogen disruption activity.6
Resistance, Pollution, Algae and More
The routine and widespread use of antibiotics on factory farms is seen as the primary driver of antibiotic resistance. Because of the extreme crowding of livestock in these concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), antibiotics are used as a “substitute” for cleaning and hygiene, says Kahn.
“These animals did not evolve to live in such crowded facilities,” she says: In Scandinavian countries where livestock antibiotics have been phased out, antibiotics resistant bacteria have greatly diminished, showing that a reversal of resistance is indeed possible if you attack it at the source.
In the video, Matthew Wargo, professor of microbiology at the University of Vermont, details factors that affect resistance, such as bacterial competition and how bacteria can confer resistance to each other. A microscope demonstration of such transference is shown in the video.
Excessive cleaning also causes other environmental harm. The single use plastic containers of harsh cleaning products significantly add to global plastic pollution says Martin Wolf, director of product sustainability and authenticity at Seventh Generation, adding that Seventh Generation products are made from recycled materials.
The phosphates in cleaning products also contribute to algae blooms — with huge plumes of discolored water that can lead to fish die-offs and municipalities being forced to cut off water to residents, notes Crawford of Bio Green Clean. Toxic algae is an constant problem in Lake Erie, closing beaches, wrecking tourism, endangering pets and contaminating drinking water.7
Cleaning Products More Dangerous Than Many Think
Many don’t give a second thought to cleaning with harsh chemicals, forgetting that when you inhale them or allow them to come into contact with your skin, they will enter your bloodstream directly, bypassing your liver and kidneys, which are part of your natural defense system against toxins.
Also, the more frequently harsh cleaning products are used, the more risks people face, according to medical studies. For example, a 2017 study found that nurses who used disinfectants once a week or more had up to a 32% higher risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease than those who didn’t.8
Even if you not do not personally use harsh cleaning products, the buildings they are used in are also made unsafe, “Washing Away Health” points out. Ventilation systems do not completely remove the chemicals, either, warns Carol Westinghouse, president and founder of Informed Green Solutions.
Crawford says harsh cleaners can even be deadly: She recounts hearing stories of cats that, having walked across floors cleaned with Swiffer WetJet, died after licking their paws. Fragrance added to cleaning products, even when natural, can also be harmful, says Wolf.
Less Washing Can Bring Back Balance
Overtreating bacteria, viruses and even fungi results in disruption of natural environments and a paradoxical resistance to the very cleaning products supposed to eradicate them, according to the experts in “Washing Away Health.”
A similar phenomenon occurs with personal care items. The natural, beneficial bacteria that live on human skin and the sebum on our hair are also disrupted by excessive cleansing. Our microbiomes and immune systems are also compromised by overcleansing.
While manufacturers of personal care products have convinced people they will smell awful or will be offensive without the use of their harsh products, the opposite is actually true. It’s primarily overcleansing that causes odor-causing bacteria to overgrow, as it disrupts your body’s natural systems of balance.
All of that said, there are instances in which germ vigilance is required. Cuts, for example, need to be properly cleaned, and disinfecting food preparation areas is a good idea. Medical facilities also need to be vigilant about cleanliness and disinfection. In our day-to-day lives, however, we should not go overboard.
Solutions From ‘Washing Away Health’
There are several encouraging trends highlighted in “Washing Away Health” that imply the problem of “too much cleanliness” is being addressed. Michelle Thompson, an industrial hygienist at the Vermont Department of Health, says the Envision Program was created in Vermont in 2000 to create healthier, safer schools with fewer asthma triggers. In 2012, Act 125, a green cleaning law, was passed in Vermont.
Westinghouse speculates that steam cleaning will begin to replace harsh chemical cleaners. Already, she says, there are portable steam cleaners that can be used commercially or residentially. Kahn thinks there is great promise in the use of viruses called bacteriophages to clean. As explained by the Leibniz Institute, phages:9
“… exclusively attack bacteria and lyse them (‘bacteria eaters’). Phages cannot reproduce alone by themselves, they require the bacterial cell as a host to reproduce within the host …
After adsorption to the bacterial surface, the phage injects its nucleic acid into the bacterium that will now be forced to produce a new phage generation by using the bacterial enzyme equipment.
One single bacterial cell produces such an enormous number of new phages that the pressure forces the bacterium to burst. The phages will immediately kill other bacteria with a surface matching with the phage.”
To prevent further antibiotic resistance, all the experts featured in “Washing Away Health” stress the importance of not demanding antibiotics from a doctor or using antibiotics for nonbacterial infections. They also urge you to vote with your wallet. Do not buy risky cleaning products that overclean and wash away health.