Rethinking Healthcare

Being too clean can make you sick

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Kids and teens who frequently use antibacterial soaps and body washes may suffer more allergies.

Scientists show how there is such a thing as being too clean.

Young people who use certain antibacterial soaps too much may suffer more allergies. To make matters worse, the same study also found that the much-maligned BPA might impair the immune system.

“It is possible that a person can be too clean for their own good,” says University of Michigan epidemiologist Allison Aiello, principal investigator on the new study.

Triclosan is a popular antibacterial agent and common ingredient in soaps, toothpaste, kitchenware, trashcan liners, and diaper bags. And bisphenol A (BPA) is a common chemical found in everyday plastics, and recently declared toxic by Canada and banned from baby bottles in the EU.

In this study, researchers compared concentrations of triclosan and BPA in urine with antibody levels and allergy diagnoses. They looked at people over the age of 6 using data from the 2003-2006 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

People 18 and under who have higher levels of triclosan were more likely to be diagnosed with allergies or hay fever.

“The triclosan findings in the younger age groups may support the ‘hygiene hypothesis,’ which maintains living in very clean and hygienic environments may impact our exposure to micro-organisms that are beneficial for development of the immune system,” says Aiello. The overuse of antibiotics and antibacterial agents are widely blamed for creating superbugs – bacteria that have developed resistance.

Meanwhile, the study also shows that people over 18 with higher BPA exposure have troubled immune responses – indicated by their higher levels of cytomegalovirus antibodies. On the other hand, in the underage group, higher BPA levels corresponded with lower levels of the antibodies.

“This suggests the timing of the exposure to BPA and perhaps the quantity and length of time we are exposed to BPA may be affecting the immune system response,” says author Erin Rees Clayton.

Both triclosan and BPA have long been suspected of causing health problems as environmental toxicants that disrupt the functions of your hormones.

"We wanted to begin to address this gap in our understanding of how prevalent chemicals such as BPA and triclosan influence immune function, because our immune systems play a crucial role in determining our overall health status," says Clayton.

In some consumer products, triclosan does provide benefits. In 1997, FDA’s review of triclosan in Colgate Total toothpaste showed evidence that it prevents gingivitis. But the agency has no evidence that triclosan in antibacterial soaps and body washes provides any benefit over washing with regular soap and water.

Their study is published today in Environmental Health Perspectives.

Image: FDA

Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure