Slathering one's child with all manner of anti-bacterial products has become a common practice among many parents—and who can blame them since the world is basically a disgusting place covered with poop dust and all kinds of dangerous germs. But recently this tendency to sanitize our offspring has come under suspicion as a possible explanation for why kids these days are developing massive amounts of allergies to everything from food to pollen. Well, the hygiene hypothesis, as it's come to be known, has scored another victory with the release of a new study that's shown that exposure to the ubiquitous antibacterial chemicals and preservatives that are in soap, toothpaste, mouthwash, etc. make kids far more likely to suffer from allergies. Shh, do you hear it? It's the sound of a million bottles of hand sanitizer being tossed in the trash.
The study was funded by the NIH and was conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins. They used data from a national health survey of 860 kids between 6 and 18. They looked at the connection between the levels of antibacterials and preservatives found in the children's urine and the presence of IgE antibodies in their blood. IgE antibodies are chemicals your body produces in response to allergens, and they become noticeably elevated in people who have allergies.
What they found was that kids who had had high levels of antimicrobial agents in their urine also had high levels of IgE antibodies. They were looking at seven different ingredients that have previously been shown to interfere with endocrine function in animals—bisphenol A (the newest scourge in plastics); triclosan; benzophenone-3; and propyl, methyl, butyl and ethyl parabens, which are found in lots of personal-care products and also in some foods and medications. In the end, they found that it was triclosan and both propyl and butyl parabens that were associated with higher allergy risk. What do all three of them have in common? Bingo: they're all antimicrobial.
Triclosan is used in a lot of soaps, mouthwashes, and toothpastes, and the kids who had the highest levels of it in their urine had the highest levels of food IgE entibodies. They also had more than twice the risk of food allergies as kids who had low levels. Add to that the fact that they had nearly double the risk of environmental allergies, and it's enough to make you start frantically scanning the label of every bottle in your home for triclosan—because, forget the kids, what about YOUR immune system?
Parabens, which are commonly used in makeup, food, and some medications, showed a similar problem. The children with high levels were more likely to have higher IgE antibodies to things like pollen and pet dander—common threats despised by all of us allergics. The kids who had the highest levels of propyl parabens also showed twice the risk of having environmental allergies. Though there was no link found between parabens and food allergies, so that is somewhat of a relief.
Researcher Dr. Corinne Keet, an allergist at Johns Hopkins Children's Center, said, "This finding highlights the antimicrobial properties of these agents as a probable driving force behind their effect on the immune system." To be clear, it's not that the antimicrobial and preservative chemicals themselves are likely causing the allergies; it's that they're interfering with the development of the kids' immune systems. The theory is that they're killing off all kinds of bacteria, not just the bad kind but the good kind too. According to Dr. Jessica Savage, an allergy and immunology fellow at Johns Hopkins, this causes the immune system to be less functional. and that, in turn, causes children to be more prone to allergies.
So, while well-meaning parents have been busily scrubbing, sanitizing, moisturizing, and sunscreening their children in an effort to prevent them from getting sick and keep them looking good, they've actually unknowingly been weakening their poor little immune systems. Looks like it's time to return to the good old days when children were routinely filthy and were allowed to rub their faces directly into the dirt (which is probably filled with all kinds of other toxic chemicals which we'll find out about in 15 years), touch worms, lick cats, and whatever else all those pioneer children did. Then, when they came back from the wild, they were only required to wash their hands before eating dinner, and maybe, if their mother was really strict, to wash their face before bed.
Antibacterials in Personal-Care Products Linked to Allergy Risk in Children [ScienceDaily]
Image via Serhiy Kobyakov/Shutterstock.