Washing your hands seems simple enough – rinse, lather, hum happy birthday as you scrub, then rinse. Easy! However, there’s a green way and the not so green way to wash your hands. Below are some common barriers to greener hand washing – this by the way is a perfect first green step for little kids because it’s easy, necessary, and a good way to open up a conversation about green living.
BARRIER one – you lather up with antibacterial soap: Antibacterial products are all the rage but many are not so green or even necessary. Many antibacterial products contain nastytriclosan. Triclosan (pdf) is a synthetic, broad-spectrum antimicrobial agent found in products such as deodorants, toothpastes, cosmetics, fabrics, plastics and of course antibacterial soaps. The downside; according to Beyond Pesticides is that, “Studies have increasingly linked triclosan to a range of health and environmental effects, from skin irritation, allergy susceptibility, bacterial and compounded antibiotic resistant, and dioxin contamination to destruction of fragile aquatic ecosystems.” There is zero current data that demonstrates any extra health benefits from having antibacterial-containing cleansers, over basic soap and water, for either hands or other items in a healthy household.
The World Health Organization (WHO) notes the same (pdf), stating that while children who wash their hands regularly with soap and water have 53% lower incidents of diarrhea, there’s no added benefits for kids in a home using antibacterial products. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also advocates simple hand washing with warm water and soap not antibacterial soap.
Furthermore, when you use antibacterial soaps you’re basically lathering with pesticides. Antimicrobials are considered pesticides by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (first used to to destroy or suppress the growth of harmful microorganisms on inanimate objects and surfaces). However these sameantimicrobials , when put into products used on the human body or in processed food or food wrappers, are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) not the EPA, even though their toxicology is the same.
If you really want to get into the nitty gritty of why antibacterial soap is no good, take a look at why using it may cause bigger and badder super germs – which I’m guessing is just the opposite of what you’d like a good hand washing to accomplish.
Skip the antibacterial soap. It costs more, it’s a pesticide, and it’s not any more effective for home use. Get some non-toxic, natural hand soap and wash your hands properly with warm water.
BARRIER 2 – you waste water: We all know that leaving the water running while we brush our teeth or wash dishes wastes water. However since it’s recommended that you rinse your hands under running water AND wash for just 20 seconds (much less time than brushing teeth or washing dishes), you’re not going to save much by turning the water off while you scrub up. That said you can still conserve water while washing your hands by installing a simple aerator (check at a Home Depot type place) which screws directly onto your faucet. An aerator reduces the splash factor, slows down the flow and saves water.
A bigger issue I’ve seen is kids who unknowingly waste water when hand washing. At my house the kids tend to turn off water faucets but not quite all the way. Teach your kiddos to turn the faucet all the way off. Water drips don’t amount to much in a day, but over time can add up.
BARRIER 3 – you use paper towels: With all the worries about the flu, many people think that paper towels are the only way to keep hand washing germ free – and yeah that makes sense in public spaces. However, at home using paper towels is an unnecessary step. If your family washes their hands properly, you all can use the same cloth hand towel unless one or more of you is sick. In the case of illness, the Canadian Lung Association notes that you should give the sick individual their own hand towel and switch out hand towels frequently.
IF you strongly feel the need to use paper towels use only 100% recycled paper towels. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) notes that, “If every household in the United States replaced just one roll of virgin fiber paper towels (70 sheets) with 100% recycled ones, we could save 544,000 trees.” That’s a shockingly large number.
BARRIER 4 – you use plastic soap dispensers: Reusing a refillable soap dispenser is a much greener choice than buying brand new plastic hand soap containers over and over again. In many cases not all components of hand soap containers can be recycled either. I buy natural soap in bulk (in a reusable container) from my local natural grocery store and simply refill my reusable containers. Another option is to buy natural bar soap in unpackaged blocks, which also are available at most natural grocers.
There, now don’t you feel like lathering up right now!