It’s an undeniable truth that antibacterial is in vogue. Supermarket aisles champion the word, while most common products proudly tout this label. Even though the “kills 99.9 percent of germs” motto is beneficial to sales, this line is absolutely terrifying.
But, wait, shouldn’t we be getting rid of the germs? Yuck, who wants germs coating their hands? You probably regard the motto as reassuring, even going as far as to believe that you really don’t want nasty little forms living on you (which explains why you take a bottle of hand sanitizer everywhere). But whether you like it or not, you have millions of microbial friends hugging your body as you read this. Neither they nor your body like it when you use antibacterial products because you end up murdering parts of your amiable, caring microbiome. Anything that takes out 99.9 percent of germs also wipes out entire populations of your positive bacteria.
Products with such antimicrobial properties typically contain membrane-lysing or protein-denaturing elements, which kill common microbes. Though these chemicals get rid of pesky environmental germs, they unnaturally sterilize our skin and prevent natural flora from living on us.
The human body is home to various types of beneficial bacteria — one such strain coats our skin and secretes factors that prevent other harmful microbes from colonizing our epidermis. Repeated antibacterial product use lowers the body’s innate microbiome resistance to outside enemy forces, making it easier to fall ill. It also prevents the acquisition of immune system intel.
When we are young, our parents help us distinguish safe from dangerous. If Dad vigorously shakes his head from side to side and widens his eyes to the size of an owl’s when we approach the stove, we learn to stay away from the grills. In a similar manner, our microbiome helps guide our early immune system and trains it to recognize positive and negative elements in the atmosphere. However, when we bombard our body surfaces with antibacterial products, we shrink the reach of our microbiome and, in turn, reduce the number of potential teachers that can help enhance our immune system’s recognition abilities.
This immunological impact has serious health consequences. If we prevent important microbiome species from flourishing and if our immune system receives scanty training, then our body lacks the discerning ability to distinguish foreign and native substances. This translates to a rise in autoimmune diseases: research has linked the rise of disorders like food allergies, multiple sclerosis and arthritis to our depleting microbiome.
Interestingly, the surge of autoimmune diseases seems to heavily impact developed countries. These countries have high standards of hygiene. This means the water is safe, the land is clean and citizens isolate themselves in boxes. There is the house box, the car box, the office box, the school box, the gym box, the hotel box, the restaurant box, the train box, the movie theater box, the mall box and the bus box. Most individuals live from box to box, spending little time in the outside world. The most serious result of our carton living is that when we isolate ourselves from the environment, we also isolate ourselves from the world’s positive microbes. By virtue of living in a developed country, we automatically limit our microbiome. If we then use antimicrobial products, we decimate the scraps of beneficial microbes residing on us. In a word, this principle is called the “hygiene hypothesis”; it has frightening implications for the health of our microbiome and the burgeoning future of autoimmune diseases.
So what can you do to protect yourself from this phenomenon? Stop using antimicrobial products. A basic hand wash soap will suffice — you don’t need to bring out the harsher, 99.9-percent-of-germs-killing substances. You can also increase the time you spend living outside of boxes: there is an entire world out there waiting to be explored. Get out there, and don’t be afraid to get messy — your microbiome is depending on it. Try to stop unnecessarily washing your clothing or dishes with soap as well: if a rinse of water will do the trick, don’t douse your clothing with sterilizing chemicals. To distill this advice in one line, don’t be a germaphobe: be a microbe-o-phile! Embrace the microbes of the world, and you’ll be fine.
Nikita Deshpande is a rising sophomore in the College. This is the final appearance of Microbial Explorations.
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