While household products like soap and hand sanitizer may seem benign, did you know some could be affecting the strength of your immune system?
The immune system is made up of cells, organs and proteins that work together to protect us from outside invaders that can harm our bodies, including viruses, bacteria and the toxins in our environment we're exposed to daily. Our immune system must be strong year-round to defend itself against these harmful toxins and germs.
The overuse of certain products that contain toxic chemicals puts additional stress on our immune system, affecting its ability to function as it should. For instance, hand sanitizer can reduce our overall exposure to bacteria, killing the harmful bacteria as well as the good bacteria we need to stay healthy. Meanwhile, using products with harmful chemicals also adds to our body's toxic load and decreases our natural ability to detoxify effectively. All of these products can weaken our immune response, leaving us with a compromised system that can't fight back as efficiently.
Good Bacteria vs. Bad Bacteria
Our immune system needs the right balance of bacteria to keep us healthy.
Good bacteria in our respiratory and digestive systems protect against invaders while promoting the repair of damaged tissue. Good bacteria help keep the "bad bacteria" we come in contact with under control.
When we overuse products like hand sanitizer and reduce the population of good bacteria, we have fewer "good guys" to keep the bad ones at bay. The first step to immune support is identifying the harmful household products you might be using.
Identifying Common Products
From dish soaps to bubble baths to shower cleaners, there are dozens of household products we use daily in our homes that could be impacting our immune system. These products can negatively affect us when we inhale them or when they come into contact with our skin, a porous organ that directly absorbs what touches it.
These products include:
Hand sanitizer:When we over-sanitize our hands, we don't give our system as much exposure to germs, which it uses to increase our immune response — our body learns to defend itself from invasion by fighting off intruders. Using hand sanitizer after touching surfaces in busy public areas can be protective, but there's no need to sanitize incessantly.
Anti-bacterial soaps, like hand sanitizer: we kill the good and bad bacteria when we use anti-bacterial soap. These soaps can also contain toxic chemicals like phthalates, parabens, sulfates and triclosan. Triclosan is a chemical that studies have found interferes with animals' thyroid function and could contribute to humans' resistance to antibiotics.
Chemical cleaners:There are now more than 80,000 chemicals used in the U.S., and many have not been thoroughly tested for how they can impact human health. Experts believe conventional cleaning products contain dozens of toxic chemicals — from phthalates to perchloroethylene, or PERC, a chemical found in carpet cleaners. 2-Butoxyethanol is a "glycol ether" and the main ingredient in many window cleaners. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it can harm the eyes, skin, kidneys and blood.
Wipes:Cleansing wipes can be convenient when tidying up — they'll kill harmful germs. But they can also be problematic by destroying the good bacteria in addition to the bad. Moreover, they could also lead to allergic reactions or sensitivities that harm the skin. Wipes often contain a disinfectant chemical called quaternary ammonium compounds, also known as QACs or "quats," which can be a problem. Overusing quats could result in superbugs or antibacterial-resistant bacteria that our immune systems can struggle to fight off.
Bleach:A study found parents who used bleach to clean at least once a week had higher rates of infections, including respiratory ones. The children had a greater risk of having the flu at least once in the prior year and a higher risk of tonsillitis. Like hand sanitizer and anti-bacterial soaps, bleach has been shown to suppress the immune system, which could make getting sick more likely.
Makeup and personal care products:Parabens are one of the most common preservatives used in cosmetics and are easily absorbed into the body. One study found that almost half of cosmetic products like lipstick, nail polish, shampoos and conditioners contain possibly harmful chemicals, especially phthalates or endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
Ways To Support the Immune System
While we can't control everything we're exposed to, we can control the products we use in our home – this is a great place to start.
Always check labels. When you buy cleaning products, scrutinize labels for chemical ingredients like phthalates. Be wary of labels that list "fragrance" without breaking down ingredients. There are an increasing number of "green" brands of household products that are organic, non-toxic and better for the environment. You can also consult the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA)Safer Choice program, where you can see if a cleaner meets EPA guidelines. Other resources include the Environmental Working Group — which gives product letter grades based on toxicity — and Made Safe.
Make your own natural household products. With a few everyday household items you most likely have in your pantry, making your own non-toxic household cleaning products is another great option. White vinegar, baking soda and an essential oil like tea tree oil can make a great all-purpose kitchen cleaner. For dish and hand soap, you could dilute castile soap with water and add citrus essential oils for a natural fragrance.
As you work to lower your toxic load by reducing exposure to harmful household products, keep in mind the many other lifestyle habits that support your immune system. Get regular exercise, adequate sleep, and prioritize a whole-food diet rich in fruits and vegetables. We can't avoid exposure to all of the toxins around us, but we can significantly support our immune health by focusing on the elements within our control.