Dirty talk: The low down on antibacterials

How much of your childhood did you spend mixing up mud pies? Turns out that if you were a fan of getting grubby as a kid, then you were probably onto something.

Research suggests that people who are exposed to a bit of old fashioned dirt as a child often have a higher immune system and less allergies. And if you love a spot of gardening then you’re in luck too, getting hands on with some soil can help to spark the production of serotonin in the brain - the happy hormone - hence why getting your fingers green can increase your sense of wellbeing. So, why the infatuation with antibacterial products and are they really any better than a good old slab of soap?

Handy as they may be when you’re faced with dreaded festival portaloos, or the handrail of a fast-moving tube, opinions are mixed when it comes to the use of antibacterials. But what are they, and should we be wary of them?

Turn on the T.V and you’re hounded with adverts about how there are more bacteria on your kitchen worktops then there are on your toilet seat, while antibacterial sprays fly in wearing capes to save us from germs. But not all bacteria are bad, many are actually beneficial to the health of our immune system. Each and every one of us naturally has a microbiota - a community of microorganisms that live in and on our bodies. In fact, only 43% of our bodies’ total cell count is made up of human cells, the rest is made up of microscopic organisms from bacteria to fungi. If that makes you shudder then fear not, most of these bacteria are ‘friendly’ and help to keep things in check.

All this talk of microbes enough to make you want to scrub down? Think again. Washing away too much of the skin’s natural microflora can actually cause more harm than good. Good bacteria colonise the skin’s surface, helping to prevent transient bacteria settling on the skin, some of which may be ‘bad’ bacteria.

The skin’s native bacteria dominates space and nutrients, producing compounds that ward off intruders...cue Lush Cosmetic Scientist and product inventor Daniel Campbell to explain more: “Preservatives in liquid hand soaps destroy the microorganisms that live on your skin whether friendly or unfriendly. When you don’t have friendly bacteria protecting your skin it becomes more vulnerable to foreign invaders, leaving you open to dry, damaged or broken skin.”

Still got questions? Okay, let’s clear a few things up.

How do antibacterials work?

Microorganisms are extremely adept at what they do and if conditions are good, these teeny tiny bacteria can multiply very quickly - some bacteria can divide in just 20 minutes. Antibacterials work by disrupting these conditions in order to make it harder for microbes to multiply, Daniel says: “If you want to kill unwanted microorganisms you need to look at what they are susceptible to. You have to either cut off their food, habitat or stop them from being able to reproduce. Imagine a microorganism like a big jelly disc that draws in resources from its surroundings. By poisoning their food source you prevent microorganisms from growing.”

This doesn’t have to be done with chemicals, materials like salt work as a natural antibacterial, Daniel explains: “The cell membrane of a bacterium is permeable. Salt sucks the water out of microorganisms, dehydrating their insides and meaning they can’t grow. Ingredients that bacteria are not able to metabolise will disrupt their biochemistry.”

We know what you’re thinking, this all sounds a little horror film-esque, but natural ingredients such as herbs, salt, and soap will help to keep your hands clean and free of harmful bacteria.

Things to look out for

Recently, the controversial antibacterial ingredient triclosan was banned from cosmetic use in both the U.K and America. Triclosan was first formulated as a pesticide in the 1960s, before being utilised in medical settings in the 1970s. Eventually however, this ingredient made its way into the consumer market and could until very recently be found in all sorts of hand sanitisers and washes. Triclosan has since been banned due to uncertainty over its long-term impacts on people and the environment, however this does not include toothpaste, meaning it can still be found in some brands.

Evidence that suggests this antibacterial could be potentially harmful to our health and the planet, is mounting - with some indicating the chemical is linked to drug resistant bacteria and hormone disruption.

Are chemical antibacterials any better than natural soaps?

Put simply - no. There’s no scientific evidence to suggest that antibacterial hand wash or sanitiser gets rid of germs any more efficiently than a good scrub with soap and warm water. In fact, according to a study on the effectiveness of soap and water vs alcohol-based hand sanitisers, people who lathered up with soap and water had fewer bacteria on their mits than those who used hand sanitiser.

Lush soaps go one step further. Rather than eradicating all bacteria, including the good stuff, Daniel says: “They help retain a microfloral balance on your skin.” Sounds far more friendly and appealing right? From the herb oregano, a natural antimicrobial with a distinctive verdant scent, to tagetes oil, distilled from the Mexican marigold - you’ll find lots of lovely (and natural) antibacterials that work with your skin instead of against it.

Give me more!

Explore the range to discover loads of soaps that sort out germs while still looking after your skin. Want to learn more about natural cosmetics? Read more here.

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