Good for Stopping Germs, Bad for the Planet?

Some tips for keeping the cold and flu at bay the eco friendly way.

The first sign of autumn for many of us isn’t a yard full of leaves. It’s sneezes, sniffles and a hyperawareness of germs, particularly if you have children.

Sure, as parents of little ones, we try to reassure ourselves that exposure to colds is good for them. That is, until virus number four in what feels like a month of sickness hits your house. That’s when you decide it’s time to up the ante against the spread of viruses. But will that mean compromising on your commitment to making sustainable choices?

Here are some of the dilemmas facing flu-fighting, eco-minded families — and how to make choices your health and heart can live with.

Reusable hand towel vs. disposable paper towels

If "disposable" is a dirty word in your house, you may be disheartened to know that bacteria loves the warm, moist conditions of that cotton hand towel hanging near the sink.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that people use paper towels for drying hands after hand washing or give everyone in the house their own dedicated cloth towel (look for naturally antibacterial hemp and bamboo towels). If you frequently have guests over, paper towels may become the logical germ-busting choice. Don’t fret ... eco-friendly varieties abound, including 100% unbleached, undyed and post-consumer-recycled paper towels. And did you know you can even dispose of them in your compost bin?

Soap and water vs. hand sanitizers

The new flu, the H1N1 virus, is single-handedly responsible for boosting hand sanitizer sales to a three-year high, according to research conglomerate The Nielson Company. Dispensers are now ubiquitously found everywhere from offices to gyms to toddler play areas.

To be effective, the CDC says a hand sanitizer must contain 60 percent alcohol. Lower concentrations just smear the bacteria around your hand. Beware that many also contain triclosan, a pesticide that is linked to liver toxicity and thyroid malfunction, according to the Environmental Working Group. Triclosan persists in the environment, too, ending up in lakes and streams and wreaking havoc with aquatic life.

But is the strong stuff really necessary? The CDC promotes good old-fashioned soap and water first and foremost, and the use of hand sanitizers when hand-washing isn’t possible.

When you do find yourself in front of a sink, it’s important to wash your hands properly, for at least 20 seconds. Soap doesn’t kill germs. The friction of rubbing your hands — top, bottom and in between fingers — loosens bacteria so it washes away. Soap with essential oils, such as lavender and tea tree, has natural antibacterial properties, making every scrub work harder.

UV wand vs. disinfectant spray

This is an easy one. Who feels good about spraying small droplets of N-alkyl Dimethyl Benzyl Ammonium Chlorides all over their home? According to, which rates household products on their impact on health and the environment, these quaternary ammonium chlorides — or “quats” — have been linked to asthma as well as birth defects and fertility issues in lab rats.

Still, it’s surfaces like telephones, doorknobs and computer keyboards that harbor unsuspecting germs and help spread illnesses through an entire family.

“The length of time that cold or flu germs can survive outside the body on an environmental surface, such as a doorknob, varies greatly,” writes James M. Steckelberg, M.D., of Mayo Clinic. “But the suspected range is from a few seconds to 48 hours — depending on the specific virus and the type of surface."

“Flu viruses tend to live longer on surfaces than cold viruses do," he adds. "Also, it's generally believed that cold and flu viruses live longer on nonporous surfaces — such as plastic, metal or wood — than they do on porous surfaces — such as fabrics, skin or paper.”

That’s where the natural germ-fighting properties of UV light come in handy. A UV sterilizing wand kills 99.9 percent of bacteria and viruses when you simply wave it over soft or hard surfaces.

Shopping cart cover vs. antibacterial wipes

If you have kids, chances are you’ve had a few packets of antibacterial wipes in your diaper bag or purse at one time or another. The individually wrapped wipes are not eco-friendly from a packaging standpoint to start with. And, just as with hand sanitizers, these one-time wipes contain the pesticide triclosan. If grocery carts and restaurant high-chairs are your primary concern for your little ones, consider using a washable, reusable cover instead.

Or if you’re often on the go and need a wipe-down, consider making your own vinegar spray that you keep in the car or baby stroller.

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McGinn's picture
User offline. Last seen 6 years 45 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 10/14/2009

I loved the article. Great info. But I believe that using paper towels instead of cotton to prevent the spread of disease in the home is a waste of resources. If you are living in a house with other people you will be exposed (in many ways) to their germs regardless of whether you use cotton or paper towels.

RNKoehn's picture
User offline. Last seen 6 years 45 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 10/14/2009

Good ideas. How about using wash clothes as hand towels? I like to keep a stack next to the bathroom sink and use one each time, then toss into a basket for laundering later. That way I'm avoiding the shared hand towel germ spread issue and not using disposable paper towels.

swedishfig's picture
User offline. Last seen 6 years 44 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 02/05/2007

Great idea about the washclothes! I have a bunch of terrycloth baby wipes from cloth diapering that would be perfect. /ginny

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