Fact vs. Fiction

MYTH: Preservatives are not necessary in cleaning products.

FACT: Not all cleaning products require preservatives, but many do.  Specifically, products that have neutral or moderate pH and contain ingredients such as surfactants, fragrances etc .which are a good source of nutrients / food on which microbes can grow. Preservative ingredients are necessary to prevent microbes from growing in these cleaning products. Preventing microbial contamination ensures that the cleaning products clean the way they are intended to clean and that consumers are not exposed to microbes in the cleaning products.

MYTH: Synthetic preservatives in cleaning products are dangerous and harmful.

The amount of a preservative in a cleaning product is typically very small.  For example, approximately 1 and ½ drops of preservative is enough to protect a quart bottle of cleaning product. Also, in addition to being used in small amounts, synthetic preservatives are extensively tested and are approved by the EPA for their intended uses in order to protect human health and the environment. Preservatives cannot be used in any manner not approved  by the EPA.

MYTH: Natural preservatives work just as well as traditional or synthetic preservatives.

FACT: “Natural” preservatives such as essential oils (i.e. thyme oil and rosemary) generally require greater amounts than are usually needed for traditional preservatives. These high levels can affect cleaning performance, fragrance and color.  Natural oils may be irritating and may cause allergic reactions in some users.  Other “naturals” such as organic acids may not be compatible with hard surface cleaners and detergents.

MYTH: Organic acids can replace all preservatives used in cleaning products

FACT: In general, organic acids are weak antimicrobials and control only certain types of microbes. While they have been used effectively in fabric softeners, they are not compatible with many hard surface cleaners and detergents. Organic acids will not protect these types of products as well as traditional preservatives.

MYTH: Use of disinfecting cleaners and hand sanitizers has lead to the creation of antibiotic resistant “super bugs”.

FACT: There is no comparison between antibiotics and cleaning products with disinfectant/sanitizer claims.  Antibiotics are medicines intended to selectively attack pathogenic microbes infecting a living host (a person or animal) without harming the host.  As such antibiotics are very selective in how they recognize and attack pathogenic microbes.  The typical course of antibiotics runs for 7-10 days.  This relatively long time is necessary for eliminating the infection because of the highly selective nature of antibiotics.  In contrast cleaning products with disinfectant/sanitizer claims are intended to kill any microbes they contact, not just the pathogenic ones.  These products are required to work in a matter of minutes rather than days.  As such they are much more aggressive towards microbes and have multiple mechanisms for attacking and killing them.  This is an illustration of what scientists refer to as the “selectivity reactivity principle”.  In simple terms, the more selective something is, the less reactive it is – or, the more reactive something is the less selective it is.  In this case, the highly selective antibiotics are less reactive towards microbes and thus need longer time to be effective whereas the highly reactive biocidal cleaning products are not very selective, killing both pathogenic and non-pathogenic microbes, and doing so in a short period of time.

An antibiotic resistant microbe is one that has evolved or mutated such that the highly selective antibiotic is no longer effective at eliminating it.  The antibiotic resistant microbe is however still a microbe and susceptible to attack biocidal cleaning products.  This is not to say that a given cleaning product with disinfectant/sanitizer claims will be effective against all microbes.  Each product must state on the label the microorganisms against which it has been proven effective.

MYTH: All Bacteria is bad.

FACT – Chances are that when you think of bacteria, the first thing that comes to mind is a nasty little germ just waiting to infect you and cause a severe sickness.  While even though we have only identified a very small number of bacteria thought to exist on the earth, this is true for a very small portion of identified bacteria.  The majority of bacteria are not only beneficial, but essential.

Bacteria are tiny single celled organisms that are ubiquitous in our world.  They inhabit everything from water to soil, from Antarctic ice to deep sea geothermal vents.  But did you know they also call the human body home?  The average healthy adult has almost 10 times more bacterial cells on (and in) them than human cells.  As you are reading this, bacteria in your intestines are creating vitamin K (necessary for blood clotting), as well as B vitamins, such as B6 and B12.  Other bacteria are also helping you digest food so that your body can utilize the nutrients trapped in your latest meal.

Elsewhere in the world, bacteria are creating insulin for diabetics, being used as pesticides to control insects such as mosquitoes and potato beetles, manufacturing methane gas to generate energy, and being used to produce drugs in the pharmaceutical industry.  They are fundamental ingredients in the production of yogurt, vinegar, sauerkraut, pickles, buttermilk, cottage cheese, and sourdough bread.  Everyday in farmer’s fields they are transforming soil minerals into available nutrients for peas, beans, soy beans and other agricultural products.

One of the most wide-reaching jobs of nature’s little janitors is waste reduction.  In the United States, wastewater treatment plant operators are dependant upon bacteria to clean up approximately 50 billion gallons of sewage every day.  Bacteria are critical in the recycling process of waste materials, as they decompose waste material into compounds that can then be recycled as building block nutrients for other natural processes.

While not all bacteria are bad, it is very important to remember that “nasty little germs” are plentiful in nature.  It is critical to limit the spread of bad bacteria and to practice good hygiene to combat possible illness that may be caused by bacteria.  This may be accomplished in many ways, including washing hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds before touching any food or food contact surface.  Be sure to use cleaners, sanitizers, and disinfectants consistently and always follow the directions supplied by manufacturers.

Bacteria are the simplest of all living organisms, consequently they are not good or bad by choice.  It is up to us to arm ourselves with knowledge and common sense to fight the bad and embrace the good.  Together, we can keep ourselves and our environment healthy.

MYTH: All microorganisms can make you sick and therefore the only good microorganism is a dead microorganism.

FACT – Microorganisms, sometimes called microbes, are nature’s recyclers.  They break down materials into their basic components and in the process make these components available for future use by other organisms.  Microorganisms have been used by mankind for generations.  Many products such as cheese, yogurt, beer and wine would not exist if it were not for microorganisms.  Further some microorganisms are essential for proper health.  The human digestive system relies on microorganisms to assist with the digestion of the food we eat.

So, if microorganisms are so necessary then why should we use disinfecting cleaners?  The answer is that while a given microorganism is essential in a given environment, placing that microorganism in a different environment can lead to problems.  For example, microorganisms essential in the human lower digestive system can cause illness if they enter the human upper digestive system.  For this reason it is important to wash your hands, preferably with a disinfecting hand soap, after going to the bathroom.

MYTH: Household cleaners are a leading cause of indoor asthma and allergy attacks.

FACT – Many cleaning products are proven to be beneficial in removing common indoor allergens including dust mite and cockroach excrement, mold spores, tobacco smoke, pollen, and pet dander from surfaces.  Regular cleaning using commercially formulated household cleaning products to help minimize indoor asthma and allergy triggers can help manage the symptoms associated with asthma and allergies.  For more information, please visit http://www.aafa.org/display.cfm?id=9&sub=24&cont=344.

MYTH: Dye and Preservative-Free Cleaners are safer because dyes and preservatives are unnecessary chemical ingredients within a cleaning products.

FACT – Dyes play an important role as visual cues that you are using the proper product and/or that the cleaner is in fact not just water, and should not be ingested. Preservatives are used to prevent growth of microbes in the product itself.  As cleaning products become milder to surfaces they also can become “milder” to microbes and may even become food for them.  A cleaning product contaminated with growing microbes can develop off odors and lose its ability to clean as the microbes eat the surfactants and other active components of the cleaning product.  Preservatives are used to protect the cleaning product and ensure it remains effective.

MYTH: If you don’t see foam, you don’t have enough detergent to clean.

FACT – If you see foam you have more than enough detergent to clean and you sometimes may have too much. Foam is created by molecules called surfactants. Those molecules love to be at “interfaces” – places where soil and surfaces meet, water and surfaces meet and water and air meet. Those same molecules can’t be two places at once. If they are cleaning up stains and dirt off your dishes or clothes, then some extra ones are needed to create foam with the air. Foam gives you the sense of security that you have enough detergent. However, too much foam can make it hard to rinse or in the case of automatic dishwashers and front loading washing machines – can interfere with the cleaning process.

MYTH: A chemical that’s “natural” means it’s safer.

FACT – Earthquakes and Chicken Pox are “natural” but would you recommend them? It is not the source of a chemical that makes it safe or unsafe, but the responsible use of it. With many cleaning molecules, it is possible to create the same chemical structure from a plant or from petroleum. Molecules don’t remember where they came from. It is the structure of a chemical that dictates its behavior and properties, not its source.

MYTH: Microbes, such as bacteria that may be used in a cleaning product, make you sick.

FACT – There are many different kinds of microbes found in nature. A small number of these microbes are known to be a public health risk and can have the potential to cause disease or make us sick given the appropriate conditions. These potentially harmful microbes are well known by doctors and scientists and are easily identified. The vast majority of microbes found in nature are beneficial and do not cause sickness or disease. In fact, right now there are 500 to a 1,000 different species of bacteria in and on your body, each hard at work digesting your food, out competing potentially pathogenic microbes, producing vitamins required to keep you healthy, and boosting your immune system to help stave off illness. In fact, in a normal healthy human over 90% of the number of cells are bacterial! Without these microbes you would not be able to survive and life as we know it would not be possible. The beneficial microorganisms used in cleaning products are wild-types found in nature, easily identifiable, that pass rigorous quality controls during the production process.

MYTH: If even one ingredient of a cleaning product is hazardous to people or the environment, is the whole cleaning product is hazardous?

FACT – Cleaning products are more than just the sum of their parts.  Think of the ingredients in a cake. Individually, flour, salt, baking powder, egg, etc. taste nothing like a cake and in fact, most of those ingredients don’t taste good at all alone.  But, put them together in the right order and right ratios and viola!  Cleaning products work the same way.  Manufacturers combine ingredients not only to create effective cleaners but also to minimize potential hazards.  As an example, some ingredients may be irritating to the skin if used alone so manufacturers blend in other ingredients to reduce irritation (like using lemon juice blended with sugar to give the desired lemon flavor without the undesired sour taste).  Consumer product manufacturers consider not only the potential hazards of the individual ingredients but also the complete product recipe and how it is used.  The product label is the best indication of how hazardous a cleaning product is to you, the user.  Read the product label carefully and follow all directions for safe and effective cleaning.