The typical home bathroom may not look like a repository for potentially dangerous chemicals, but it can be just that, thanks to products that aim to kill germs and clean, refresh and purify bodies. Are natural and organic products the answer? Not necessarily.
Here's what you need to know about controlling chemicals in the bathroom:
1 MOST ANTIBACTERIAL PRODUCTS UNNEEDED
Antibacterial hand soaps and body wash products sound like they're just the thing to fight germs. But infection specialists say they're simply not necessary, and plain old-fashioned soap -- natural and organic from health-food shops or a brand-name product from the drugstore -- is absolutely fine. "You don't need to use fancy stuff," said Dr. Aaron Glatt, executive vice president and chief administrative officer for Mercy Medical Center in Rockville Centre and a spokesman for the Infectious Diseases Society of America. "Antibacterial soap doesn't work any better than plain soap and water."
Indeed, research has shown that "simply washing thoroughly with plain soap is sufficient to reduce bacteria and is effective against viruses," said Dr. Luz Fonacier, head of allergy and immunology at Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola and a professor of clinical medicine at Stony Brook University.
Through their unnecessary use, Fonacier said, antibacterial products can also contribute to the rise of germs that can't be killed by normal antibiotics. Triclosan, a chemical ingredient in some antibacterial products, has been specifically shown to increase bacterial resistance, she said. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, in fact, is reviewing studies that have not only linked Triclosan to bacterial resistance but also suggested that it might harm the immune system and affect hormone regulation. At this point, however, the agency has not deemed it hazardous.
As for alcohol-based hand sanitizers, Fonacier noted that research has questioned their value in combating infections, but Glatt recommends their use.
2 REIN IN YOUR CLEANLINESS GOALS
It's impossible to get rid of all the germs lurking in the bathroom, especially in areas such as the toilet. Instead, Glatt said, "it's best to get rid of large numbers of bacteria, so the numbers are more reasonable for the area you're cleaning."
Bacteria, of course, don't stand up to be counted. The best way to make germs go away is to "remove the grime or dirt that's visible," he said.
Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst with the Environmental Working Group, a national advocacy organization, suggests staying away from harsh cleaning chemicals such as bleach and ammonia. Instead, she said, it's best to rely on elbow grease, scouring sponges and Magic Eraser-type products.
The organization recommends a variety of cleaning products that do have chemical components. But the Internet is full of formulas for homemade natural cleaning products that rely on baking soda, vinegar and lemon juice.
Just remember, the organization advises, that "there is no advantage nor disadvantage with homemade products as long as they work."
3 BEWARE OF POTENTIAL ALLERGENS
Just because something is "natural" doesn't mean it's harmless to people with allergies. A variety of components in so-called natural cosmetics, deodorants and other products can cause skin allergies, Fonacier said. She noted that so-called essential oils such as tree tea oil (Melaleuca alternifolia), ylang-ylang oil (Cananga odorata), Jasmine flower oil (Jasminum officinale), peppermint oil (Mentha piperita), and lavender oil (Lavandula angustifolia) can all spark allergic reactions.
Consumers need to read product labels carefully. "The use of the term 'unscented' can erroneously suggest that a product does not contain fragrance," Fonacier said, when the product actually contains a fragrance that masks another scent in a bid to make the product smell like nothing.
"'Fragrance-free' products are typically free of classic fragrance ingredients and are generally acceptable for the allergic patient," she said. However, "caution should be exercised with substitute products, which are labeled fragrance-free but contain large numbers of botanical extracts."
Fonacier added that aluminum chloride, the active ingredient in antiperspirants, "may be irritating, but it rarely causes an allergic reaction."
Environmental activists have been concerned about the possible negative effects of aluminum chloride in antiperspirants in the past. The Environmental Working Group ranks its overall risk as low-to-moderate, a 3 to 4 on a range of 0 (least hazardous) to 10 (most hazardous).
4 'ORGANIC' CAN BE A DECEIVING LABEL
The Environmental Working Group warns that loopholes in federal regulations allow cosmetics to be called "organic" without penalty from the federal government."Products labeled 'organic' or 'natural' can contain petrochemicals and no certified organic or natural ingredients whatsoever," the group states.
The organization notes that each day, people encounter dozens of chemicals in cosmetics and bathroom products such as shampoos, deodorants and shaving creams. On average, it says, women use 12 products a day containing 168 ingredients, men use six products with 85 ingredients, and kids come in contact with 61 ingredients.