Soap…the simple solution

Cathleen Kronemer, NSCA-CPT, Certified Health Coach, is a longtime fitness instructor at the Jewish Community Center. 

By Cathleen Kronemer

When I was growing up, my mom would always remind me to wash my hands with soap and water before we sat down to dinner. Usually I had been playing in the park across the street from our house, or occasionally climbing a tree, so this was prudent advice, an attempt to rid myself of any potential “playground pathogens” that might have hitched a ride home on my skin.  Back then, any decent soap, warm water, and a thorough scrubbing was considered satisfactory. Why did we have to go and complicate a good thing?

Today our society seems to be preoccupied with antibacterial everything. From the gym to the grocery store, we see hand sanitizer dispensers and wipes scaring us into submission, for fear of succumbing to some deadly disease should we risk walking by and not taking advantage of what they are offering.  As it turns out, the paradox is that this very product may contain a chemical that can do us more harm than good!

The ingredient triclosan, which is ubiquitous in a majority of antibacterial products, has come under scrutiny by the scientific community.  This chemical has been the focus of research done by Dr. Isaac Pessah, professor of molecular biosciences, at UC Davis for the last eight years. The most recent study was one of the first to reveal that upon exposure to to high levels of the chemical, mice showed impairment in the contraction and relaxation of the heart and skeletal muscle.  “Triclosan is a clear-cut case of the potential hazards of using it in so many products,” said Pessah. “Triclosan has been documented to promote bacterial resistance, a global problem that has reached critical proportions, sufficient for the CDC to issue bulletins about the hazards of microbial resistance.”

Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found a 50 percent increase in levels of triclosan across all demographics in the U.S., according to a recent national report on human exposure to environmental chemicals. When using a product containing triclosan, a small amount gets absorbed through your skin. A 2008 study, which was designed to assess exposure to triclosan in a representative sample of both children and adults throughout the United States, found triclosan to be present in the urine of nearly 75 percent of those tested.  Since the news of MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staph Aureus) first came to the public eye, as a potentially fatal source of infection, scientists have been warning of the dangers of encouraging bacterial resistance in the environment. There may just come a time when those little buggers outsmart us if we are not careful now!

So…what is the trick to staying healthy this flu season, especially if you find yourself in skin contact with many surfaces or individuals?  While there is never a guarantee of not contracting any illness, washing hands with regular soap and water, or using a triclosan-free, alcohol-based hand sanitizer, might just be your best defense.