Our Reliance on Soap Could Be Making Us Sick

Getting clean might not be all that good for us.

12.02.16

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Every day the media bombards us with new health discoveries, corroborated and otherwise. When something as ubiquitous and seemingly innocuous as soap keeps popping up in headlines, it’s hard to ignore. This became particularly true when, this past September, the F.D.A. passed a new ban that would send a lot of health and beauty companies running back to the lab.

“The Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of soaps containing certain antibacterial chemicals,” reported Sabrina Tavernise the Times. “In all the F.D.A. took action against 19 different chemicals and has given industry a year to take them out of their products.”

Apparently about 40% of soaps on the market contain these chemicals. Last time I checked, that was a shit-ton! And a lot of it is probably sitting in our bathrooms, making us feel squeaky clean and superior on a nightly basis. And this — in regards to the two most common newly-banned chemicals — sounds worrisome: “Studies in animals have shown that triclosan and triclocarban can disrupt the normal development of the reproductive system and metabolism,” Tavernise wrote. “Health experts warn that their effects could be the same in humans.”

Apparently The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found these very chemicals in the urine of three-quarters of Americans. “It has boggled my mind why we were clinging to these compounds, and now that they are gone I feel liberated,” said Rolf Halden, a scientist at the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University. “They had absolutely no benefit but we kept them buzzing around us everywhere.”

Experts are seeking to ban more chemicals commonly found in soaps, such as benzalkonium chloride, benzethonium chloride, chloroxylenol, alcohol (ethanol or ethyl alcohol) and isopropyl alcohol, to name a few. Companies that use them will soon face the same fate: prove they’re more help than harm or nix them.

At the heart of this conversation lies something much closer to home than the lab: our love affair with being clean.

“Some scientists believe that our society’s current obsession with cleanliness — both in the form of overuse of antibacterial cleaning products, as well as an exceedingly sanitized lifestyle that keeps us isolated from most sources of germs that can make us ill — has caused our immune systems to become hypersensitive to foreign assaults of all kinds, whether harmful or beneficial,” reports Time.

Researchers at the University of Michigan School of Public Health found that the levels of triclosan (the one recently banned by the F.D.A.) in urine was a good indicator for how “clean” the person’s environment was. “Among those under the age of 18, [researcher Allison Aiello] and her colleagues found that those who showed higher levels of triclosan were more likely to report allergies or hay fever. In fact, for every unit increase of triclosan excreted, there was a 24% greater likelihood of being diagnosed with hay fever or allergies among those younger than 18.”

A recent study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology revealed similar findings but from the opposite perspective, people who don’t over-sterilize their homes. “About 41 percent of allergy-free and wheeze-free children in the study grew up in homes that were rich with allergens and bacteria. By contrast, only 8 percent of children who suffered from both allergy and wheezing had been exposed to these substances in their first year of life.”

So what do we do with all this information? Stop showering? Throw out all of our products? For guidance, I talked to Dr. Rupy Aujla — a general practitioner and the founder of The Doctor’s Kitchen — because he’s a pro at using credible science and a balanced head when it comes to traversing health trends. He’s also a fan of good bacteria — recall his thoughts on probiotics.

“The danger of soap is quite topical at the moment,” he told me. “It’s part of a much bigger discussion, which is whether we need to be wary of personal care products in general. And my answer to that is a rather inconvenient yes.”

He went on to explain that while most people are have an easier time comprehending that what we ingest through food and drink impacts our health, many underestimate the impact of what we put on our skin. “Skin has a barrier function, it’s involved in thermoregulation,” he said, “But it’s also permeable. That’s why I can prescribe hormone replacement topical patches for menopausal women to good effect.”

This point of view unfortunately does more than make us careless in our everyday choices, it actually pervades the way these two things — ingestible products versus topical — are regulated. Food and pharmaceuticals have far more rigorous standards as compared to health and beauty products. “On a yearly basis, thousands of petrochemicals are synthesized and introduced to the incredible library of compounds that come into contact with humans,” Dr. Aujla said. “A lot found in personal care products like shampoos, moisturizers, makeup and soap are not regulated for safety.” So, as we continue to get a better grasp on what is and isn’t truly cause for concern, how do we move forward practically?

“Does an ingredient with an unusual ‘chemically’ sounding name mean that it is bad for you? No, of course not,” Dr. Aujla assured me. “But considering the recent high profile cases involving toxic substances that have been exposed to human populations for decades before they were banned, you can understand why people are getting worried and exercising caution by opting for ‘natural’ skincare products. I wouldn’t say it’s unreasonable.”

He also he advised we be realistic. “Remember, we live in a world surrounded by unnatural elements ranging from vehicle pollution, electronic lights, artificial scents and conditioned air. It’s very easy to fall into the unhealthy agoraphobic mindset of being fearful of everything in our environment. It’s important to remember that our bodies are fantastic detoxifying machines that are particularly good at removing foreign compounds and the best way to support them is a diet rich in greens, colorful plant foods, clean water, exercise and reducing exposure to refined processed ingredients.”

But a loosening of our paranoia belt might be even better directed at our fear of germs. “This obsession with wanting to kill germs and rid ourselves of all bacteria is an unhealthy perspective to take,” Dr. Aujla continued. “We live in a symbiotic relationship with the vast majority of bacteria in and around our bodies. They are responsible for maintaining immunity, controlling inflammation as well as digestion of nutrients.”

So, in essence: don’t panic, but chill on the soap, and buy natural when you can.

On the topic of side-eyeing health trends, how bad is sugar really, really?

Photo by Krista Anna Lewis.

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