What are antimicrobials?
First things first, antimicrobials are NOT the same thing as antibiotics. Antibiotics are medicines used when you are sick with a bacterial infection, and should definitely be taken fully if prescribed by your doctor, even if you start to feel better after the first couple of days. Antimicrobials, on the other hand, were originally designed by companies who thought that adding in an antimicrobial agent would boost the effectiveness of soaps. The most common ingredient in these antimicrobial products was triclosan (an antibacterial and antifungal agent) which has since been phased out in hand soaps due to FDA regulation (1). Triclosan was phased out over concerns that animal and cell studies show the chemical can impact hormone signaling and other biological processes (2).
Where can you be exposed?
Like we mentioned before, triclosan was first introduced in soaps. Since then, antimicrobials have spread to shower curtains, mattresses, apparel, toothpaste, paint, art supplies, and essentially anything that could have the ability to harbor more germs than usual. Manufactures have included antimicrobials into many of these products because of their tendency to act as a perfect environment for bacteria and mold when they come into contact with water (or sweat!). Even though triclosan has been phased out in hand soap (you can still find it in toothpaste!), it is still allowed in hospitals and food service industries. What is even more concerning for consumers is that companies are replacing triclosan with other antimicrobials that may potentially have the same toxic health effects, if not worse.
Are antimicrobials even effective?
Actually, not at all! In studies conducted, soaps containing triclosan and soaps without triclosan performed exactly the same and prevented the same amount of sickness (2). Even though they sound promising, no amount of antimicrobials will be able to prevent mold and other bacteria from growing on mattresses or shower curtains if they are not properly ventilated and washed. In addition to this, overusing antimicrobials can actually make it harder for doctors to treat you when you are truly sick. Antimicrobials are causing a rise in the number of superbugs, or bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. Using antimicrobials when we don't need them makes these bugs resistant to antibiotics, so when we do need antibiotics to treat diseases, they don't work. Basically, by using too many products full of antimicrobials, we are helping the bacteria practice and get stronger at fighting against our best defenses. Sounds like a pretty awful deal for something that doesn't really work, right?!
What should I do then?
Our best advice is to stay away from antimicrobial-containing products, period. Since you can't really prevent antimicrobial exposure in hospitals and food service areas, removing it from your household is a good way to limit your contact. Lucky for us, products containing antimicrobials are usually labeled since companies use it as a selling point and make sure to brag about the fact that their product contains antimicrobials. So if you see one, just put it back on the shelf and buy one that is antimicrobial-free. For household items like mattresses, shower curtains, and clothes, making sure these items are in well ventilated areas and washing them when needed are great ways to make sure gross germs don't grow in the first place.
This little change will make a BIG impact. Staying away from antimicrobial products not only protects your health in the long run, it also ensures that antibiotics will work for you when an infection really hits.