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Why Disinfectants and Antibacterials Are Overkill + 5 Health-Safe Alternatives
What’s the most germ-ridden part of the bathroom? The toilet? Guess again. It’s the sink drain. And ironically, that’s partly due to our use of disinfectants and antimicrobial products. Fear of germs has many overdoing it with germ killers — often without adequate information.
Why many disinfectants and antibacterial ingredients are overkill
In the United States, a product can be labeled and advertised as a disinfectant, antibacterial or antimicrobial agent only after it’s registered as a pesticide with the Environmental Protection Agency. Those who run hospitals, daycare centers and nursing or assisted living homes feel they must use a registered disinfectant that ensures a 100-percent pathogen kill rate. And consumers approach their homes with a similar mindset — we believe we need to kill all the germs, viruses and bacteria on our household surfaces, so we use products made to do just that.
Many of these products are overkill, made with chemicals that can cause the same problem as overuse of antibiotics — superbug overgrowth — according to Tufts University School of Medicine. Using these products is especially dangerous in places filled with children, sick people and the elderly; but superbugs are bad news anywhere.
Disinfectants have been linked to other health problems as well: A recent study highlighted concerns that nurses regularly exposed to cleaning products and disinfectants shared a significantly increased occurrence of asthma. And some antimicrobial agents — such as triclosan, commonly used in products like antibacterial hand soaps — are suspected endocrine disrupters and immunotoxins.
Check the labels of the cleaning and toiletry products in your home. You’d be amazed at how many places you’ll find registered antimicrobial ingredients — way beyond antibacterial soaps and disinfectant sprays. Even some toothpastes contain antimicrobial agents such as triclosan.
5 ways to reduce germs, viruses and bacteria without pesticides
With the array of safer and more natural products on the market that kill viruses, bacteria and mold, you can get your home clean and assuage your concerns about germs without going overkill. While the products and methods listed below aren’t all EPA-registered as disinfectants, they’re shown to go a long way toward reducing pathogens without using harmful chemicals.
1. Vinegar disinfecting spray
Numerous studies show that plain white vinegar — the kind you can buy in any supermarket — kills 99 percent of bacteria, 82 percent of mold and 80 percent of viruses.
To make a disinfectant spray to kill germs on doorknobs and toilet seat rims, simply pour some white distilled vinegar into a clean spray bottle. Spray it on undiluted, and don’t rinse. If you don’t like the smell of vinegar, add a few drops of an antibacterial essential oil such as tea tree, lavender or thyme. Antibacterial essential oils are not known to cause superbug overgrowth.
2. Soap and water
It’s unrealistic to try to sterilize an entire home or building. But you can reduce germs on surfaces, and to do this the EPA recommends washing with soapy water. Be sure you're using real soap, as some products that call themselves a soap are actually detergents, which are unlikely to work as well as a real, alkaline soap. (Many detergents are closer to a neutral pH.)
Dr. Bronner’s liquid castile soap is a real soap. I’ve tested it myself to prove its alkalinity, which is what makes it kills germs. Many combine soap with antibacterial essential oils such as lavender, boosting their germ-killing power. For hand washing, an all-important way to reduce the spread of germs, use real bar soap like these with essential oils. Avoid hand-washing products labeled antimicrobial.
3. Cleaners made with essential oils
Cleaning products made with essential oils kill a lot of germs. Begley’s Best Household Cleaner and Spot Remover is a great example; it contains germ-killing pine extract. Also try Seventh Generation's Tub & Tile Cleaner with Emerald Cypress & Fir.
4. UV sterilizing tools
5. Botanical disinfectants
If you work at or maintain a facility that you feel requires a 100-percent germ-kill rate or you'd feel reassured using an EPA-registered disinfectant, try one of the new-and-few botanical disinfectants. Benefect has received an EcoLogo for its environmental stewardship.
A respected and seasoned authority on home and garden toxins and chemical sensitivities, Annie B. Bond is the author of Clean & Green, Home Enlightenment and other books on keeping a health-friendly and earth-friendly abode.