Scitech | Coming clean about being clean

A look at the potential dangers of antibacterial, antiseptic, and disinfectant products

It is early January, and you are sitting in Leacock 132. Although common disturbances, such as people going on Facebook, eating breakfast, or hitting their keyboard with unnecessary force, are all distracting and irritating, nothing can compare to the incessant coughing that often accompanies the arrival of winter. With 300 million droplets of water released with every cough, each containing an unimaginable number of microbes, you might be tempted to reach for the nearest antibacterial product. These products all have one goal in common, to reduce the harmful effects of pathogenic bacteria.

There are many terms used to describe these products: antiseptics, antimicrobials, and disinfectants are just a few, and, while companies may use these names interchangeably, they actually mean very different things. Antiseptics are substances that kill or slow the growth of bacteria. While antibiotics are technically synonymous with antiseptics, the category has grown to encompass a broader range of antimicrobial substances, which kill or inhibit the growth of all microorganisms: bacteria, fungi, and protozoans. Common antiseptic substances include: polysporin, antibacterial soaps (such as Safeguard), and other products that contain active antiseptic or antibiotic ingredients.

Disinfectants – which are commonly used to clean our environment do not, like antiseptics, necessarily kill all microorganisms. They are less specific, weaker, and are a poor substitute for proper sterilization, which kills all microorganisms. The active ingredients in these substances are often alcohols or povidone-iodine. Although these chemicals can kill many bacteria, they are not effective against nonresistant bacterial spores. Common disinfecting products include the entire line of Lysol products and all hand sanitizers (such as Purell).

For many people the allure of antiseptics is irresistible. The thought of being able to eliminate any and all harmful bacteria sounds much safer than simply disinfecting. Although, while this may be true in theory, in reality it is impossible to kill all bacteria, regardless of how strong the antiseptic is.

Bacteria are unicellular organisms that keep the majority of their genetic information in chromosomes, much like we do. Additionally, many contain plasmids, which are extra circular DNA that can contain genes that make their owners resistant to our attempts to kill them. As these plasmids are not connected to the main portion of the bacteria’s DNA, they can be conveniently donated to another bacterium through a temporary melding of the two or ingested by one from the other. Furthermore, as long as one bacterium survives after the introduction of an antiseptic, it won’t be long before this resistance is shared with other nearby bacteria, creating an army of resistant minions.

A recent study done by researchers from the University of Iowa showed that, within a week, new hospital privacy curtains will have a significant number of contaminants, despite constant attempts at sanitization. Another study from the United States show that children brought up in overly sanitized environments – which could easily result from the continual use of these kinds of products – have a higher chance of developing asthma.

In addition to the resistant bacteria that the use of antibacterial substances results in, many of these antibacterial substances are toxic to humans. For example, Listerine contains chlorhexidin, which, despite its ability to remove bad breath and kill bacteria, hampers the growth of gums and creates millions of micro-cracks in the gums, all of which are prime breeding grounds for bacteria to take root.

In light of all the dangers of using antiseptics, simple disinfectants may actually be our best bet at keeping harmful bacteria at bay. Hand sanitizers, especially, seem to be the lone products to stand the test of time. Studies have shown that, on top of their convenience, they are possibly even more effective than soap and water in removing bacteria and maintaining clean hands. However, nothing is perfect and disinfectants are equally capable of creating resistant bacteria. This, however, occurs at a much slower rate than that which takes place with antiseptics and results in many fewer deadly microbes.

Ultimately, none of these products do anything to combat the flu. “The flu is a virus, not bacteria,” Professor of biology Tom Bureau points out. Professor of microbiology and immunology Albert Berghuis concurred in an interview with the McGill Reporter, emphasizing that using these products to combat the flu  “is both useless and promotes antibiotic resistance.”

So the next time you start coughing, take a day off instead of spraying your house with Lysol and forcing your roommates to douse themselves in antibacterial soap. Not only are you doing yourself a favour, but you are also helping fight the on-going battle against resistant bacteria.