Antimicrobial Chemicals (Part 1)

In this column we will continue to explore Green Chemistry and how it impacts the transition to a more sustainable society. This month’s focus is on antimicrobial chemicals.

The word “antimicrobial” is regulated by the FDA. They control the meaning of most of the “anti” words out there: antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory etc.

The legal definition of anti-microbial is called the “30 second kill rate”. This means that 99.99% (they aren’t allowed to say 100%) of all critters: fungus, bacteria, mold and virus must be dead within 30 seconds.

This is a lot to ask for from a product.

There are several common methods of topical germ killing.

The safest (to humans) way is by using alcohol or alcohol/essential oil combinations. If the final product is 64% alcohol we are allowed to make a sanitizing claim.

I like ethanol best for topical use. Isopropyl alcohol is a petroleum product and second best. Rubbing alcohol may contain methyl alcohol, which is a no-no. Read the label!

The germ killing effects of alcohol can be enhanced with essential oils. Thyme works very well here, as do many others. Different essential oils tend to have different areas of competency for critter killing. Some do better on fungus like tea tree and manuka oils. Others, like lavender are more effective on virus colonies.

But wait! Do we really need all those disinfecting chemicals? What about good old soap and water?

According to the State of Vermont Department of Health, a food service worker can flip your burger, wipe his butt, wash with soap and water for 30 seconds and serve that burger safely. So what’s with the anti-microbial craze?

Soap and water wash away nearly all germs within 30 seconds. The “bad” germs like e- coli and staph are especially susceptible to soap and water and quickly wash away. Soap and water are all you need 95% of the time. You want to look for something stronger when:
a) someone in your household or workplace has an infectious disease or impaired immune system
b) you are about to perform open heart surgery or clean public spaces and restrooms

Use alcohol, (but not methyl alcohol which is poisonous) to sanitize, disinfect or make surfaces antiseptic. All of these words mean the same thing by the way. I disinfect my carboys when I make wine. I want to make sure only one type of yeast gets to eat the sugars to make alcohol.

Real soap and warm water followed by a clean towel works for 95% of the cleaning you will do on and off your body. Match the correct product or dilution to the task at hand and you have a good shot at living a long and health life.

And remember what Grandma said, “A little dirt is good for you”.

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