Antimicrobial Chemicals

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 these 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 kill or remove most germs within 30 seconds. The “bad” germs like e- coli and staph are especially susceptible to soap and water. Soap and water are all you need 99% of the time. You want to look for something stronger when
a) someone in your household or workplace has an infectious disease
b) you are about to perform open heart surgery

Use alcohol, (not methyl alcohol) to sanitize, disinfect or make antiseptic. All of these words mean the same thing. I disinfect my vessels when I make wine. Restaurants use heat disinfecting dishwashers (if they care) or leave-on disinfectants dispensed through the dish washing machine (if the don’t). I use soap and water throughout the day and rarely get sick.
OK – how about antibacterial soap products? Sounds like a winning combination. Enhancing the germ killing effects of soap and water with germ killing chemicals may seem like a good idea on the surface. However, once we look into the anti-germ molecule itself red flags start popping up everywhere.

Anti-microbial soap products, and most anything making the 99.99% claim uses Triclosan as the active ingredient. Triclosan is the trade name for polychlorinated phenoxy phenols. Read the words carefully. This is not a breakfast drink. Triclosan is effective at 6 parts per million. Think about it. 6 molecules per million other molecules and it still kills 99.995 of germs, allegedly with zero side effects to humans.

Incredulous? You should be. If something doesn’t pass the commonsense test, it is unlikely to be true.

Triclosan is “Agent Orange” with a methyl group. Ever see someone who was overexposed to Agent Orange in ‘Nam? I met a guy who’s skin actually turned orange and he shook all the time.

Oh yeah, he’s dead now.

This is like pretending that herbicides are harmless to mammals. Pure propaganda.

I suspect that future generations will look back on this poor deluded civilization and lament, “If only they had studied the chemistry and applied the cautionary principle to everything they created…”

How about Grape Fruit Seed Extract? Sure sounds natural! The most natural thing about GSE is the name. By taking an engineered product and registering a trade name that sounds natural a whole new market opens up!

GSE is recognized as a gram –positive mold inhibitor. Any other bacterialcidal effects are spurious or caused by the addition of broad spectrum anti-microbials like triclosan. I had a long talk with a cosmetic chemical salesguy. He told me his best customer for triclosan was a US based GSE producer. He said he was buying a new car from the commission checks he got from them.

Now who am I supposed to believe? The triclosan sales guy trying to suck up to my business and impress me with his client list, or the website of the accused?

Look, you either pay attention to the molecules or you get ripped off, and maybe sold something that causes your immune system to malfunction or contribute to your cancer load.

Unlike humans, molecules don’t lie – they just follow their nature. And so should you!

Realize that we are are part and parcel of the ecosystem that begat us. We can control the predominance of bacteriological colonies and manipulate our circumastances to increase our health and comfort. The goal is not to live in a sterilized box.

Simple germ killers you can make for home use:

  1. 70% Isopropyl alcohol in a spray bottle. I leave these in bathrooms throughout my world for disinfecting toilet seats, shaving razors and tooth brushes. Cheap, simple and effective. Add a few drops of essential oils and it smells and works even better.
  2. Add 10% bleach to Liquid Sunshine Spray and Wipe to make a foaming disinfecting cleaner. Use this to kill mold on shower stalls and tile and to disinfect toilets. Bleach is compatible with castile soap based cleaners like Liquid Sunshine. You can save even more money by buying the soap concentrate and making a spray from 10% castile liquid soap or Liquid Sunshine and 10% bleach. Add a little more bleach or soap for heavier duty jobs, but please wear gloves and eye protection!
  3. Make your own hand sanitizer using any 40 proof drinking alcohol (ethanol). Mix with a few drops of essential oils so people don’t get the wrong impression when they meet you. Pour into a 4oz sprayer for ease of use and store the rest for refills. Store your sprayer in a zip lock type plastic bag if you are dragging this around in your bag. Bottles can leak over time!

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

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