Q. I know that some of the chemicals in antibacterial hand gels and soaps are not good for the environment, but I recently saw one that uses corn ethanol to kill germs. Are natural antibacterial soaps healthier or better for the environment than synthetic ones? – John, MN

A. Actually, losing the antibacterial soaps and germ phobia altogether is your best, healthiest and most planet-friendly option — despite the fact that our alarmist culture of clean tells us we need antibacterial sprays and lotions on hand at all times, in every purse, every glove compartment, every backpack. The first reason to avoid them, says Rebecca Sutton, PhD, senior scientist for the Environmental Working Group, is an  ingredient called triclosan, commonly used in antibacterial products. Triclosan is an antimicrobial agent and pesticide that’s closely related to dioxin. Translation: It’s been linked to liver and thyroid problems. Awesome.  

The second reason to avoid antibacterial products is that even those made with alcohol increase the risk of antibiotic resistance. What that means, in a nutshell, is that as antibacterial products become more common, some germs become immune to them, then come back with a vengeance in the form of “superbugs.” Trust us when we say that you do not want a superbug setting up camp in your bod. And since study after study shows that washing your hands with regular soap and water is as effective as using special germ-killing products, there’s really no point in buying a bunch of disinfectants you don’t need, whether they’re synthetic or natural.

Of course there are situations where you might justifiably need a quick, convenient way to wash up without water — whether you’re hiking or roadtripping. And yes, if you want to throw a hand sanitizing gel in your diaper bag or camping first aid kit, a bio-based product like ethanol would probably have a slight edge over petroleum-derived, isopropyl alcohol, the more common ingredient in hand gels. We all know corn doesn’t exactly have a pristine environmental record, but it definitely never hurts to reduce your consumption of petroleum-based products, even if by just a smidgen. 

Story by Tobin Hack. This article originally appeared in Plenty in December 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008.