Cleanliness is a virtue, but it’s possible to overdo it–that’s the message from a new study, which found that antibacterial soap may be doing teenagers more harm than good. The study found that the more teenagers are exposed to the antibiotic triclosan, the more likely they are to suffer from allergies and hayfever.
The researchers also looked at the effects of the widely used plastic chemical Bisphenol A (BPA), and found signs that teenagers with more BPA exposure may have immune system problems. The study was the first of its kind to examine the link between these two chemicals and immune dysfunction, which had only previously been studied in animals. Both chemicals are endocrine-disruptors, which means they may mimic or interfere with the body’s natural hormones.
“Many research studies show an association between exposure to environmental chemicals and different disease outcomes. There is a lack of data, however, examining whether exposure to these chemicals may affect our immune systems,” Erin Rees Clayton, a researcher from the University of Michigan school of public health said in an email. [The Montreal Gazette]
Triclosan, an antibacterial compound, has become extremely prevalent in our cleanliness-obsessed society. It’s added to pretty much anything that’s been labeled as “anti-bacterial,” from hand soaps to laundry detergent and as an additive to toys and towels. But it’s primarily recommended for use in toothpaste, where it helps prevent gingivitis, and in the treatment of patients infected with the antibiotic-resistant bacterium MRSA (which you aren’t likely to come across on a daily basis, unless you work in a hospital). For every-day germs, the FDA recommends hand-washing with plain soap and water.
The study examined triclosan and BPA levels in teenagers and adults from the 2003-2006 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. While the connection between high triclosan levels and the presence of allergies is still just a correlation, some researchers believe that over-cleanliness could lead to disruptions in our immune systems and cause disease.
“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,” said Allison Aiello, associate professor at the U-M School of Public Health…. “It is possible that a person can be too clean for their own good.” [press release]
Because of the type of data the researchers used, it’s hard to draw strict conclusions from these correlations. But it’s an important first step in teasing out how exposure to these chemicals may affect our bodies.
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Image: flickr / the Italian voice