It's Global Handwashing Day: Do You Know How Safe and Effective Your Soap Is?


Image via: Method

Oct 15th is Global Handwashing Day, and since I happen to be in the handwashing business, I wanted to examine the simple act of washing our hands from a design perspective. When you apply a design lens to how we wash our hands, you realize the current model is deficient. And applying that design lens offers insight to a healthier, greener way to live.Today, the market is dominated by antibacterial hand washes. They make reassuring claims like "kills 99.99999% of germs." Most of them contain a hazardous chemical called Triclosan.

Our primary objective in handwashing is, of course, hygiene. And Global Handwashing Day is about demonstrating the important link between this simple act and staying healthy. But washing our hands with antibacterials like Triclosan has consequences. Some are environmental: packaging waste and soap that must be broken down. But some are, ironically, health-related.

There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that the rampant use of antibacterial soaps not only doesn't make us any healthier, but in fact, may make us worse off. Dr. Stuart Levy is one of the leading researchers on the health effects of using antibacterials (see references 1 and 2 below), and he recommends against their widespread use. And don't forget the environmental effects that persistent and toxic chemicals like Triclosan have.

This is one example of how our current habits can be driven more by the false sense of security the marketing of these products gives us, rather than the real health benefits they deliver.

Design is about intention. And if we want to create change through design, then we have to design with a broader set of objectives in mind. The designer who wants to incorporate all the aspects of health, environment, function, and beauty into her design comes to a different conclusion about what a hand soap should be. She resists the allure of the powerful marketing messages that come from that "kills germs" claim, and instead designs a product to clean, not kill.

Perhaps someday there will be antimicrobial agents that truly provide enhanced health benefits without any negative environmental or human health consequences. But until then, the design solution is what Mom always told us: wash with good old soap and water for 20 seconds. Who knew Mom was a designer?

For more info on Global Handwashing Day and a new UNICEF/WHO report highlighting handwashing as an effective way to prevent diarrheal disease for children in developing countries, visit: http://www.path.org/news/pr091014-unicef-diarrhea.php

Scientific literature:
1. Tan, L, et al. "Use of Antimicrobial Agents in Consumer Products." Archives of Dermatology 138 (2002): 1082-1086
2. Levy, Stuart B. "Antimicrobial Consumer Products: Where's the Benefit? What's the Risk?" Archives of Dermatology 138 (2002): 1087-1088

More on antibacterial soaps
Are you overdosing on Triclosan?
7 Antibacterials to make you feel better, not worse
Better health for all: Critical to reduce population growth and poverty
1.5 Million Children Die a Year From Diarrhea - Unsafe Drinking Water, Lack of Handwashing to Blame

Tags: Bacteria | Designers | Diseases

Best of TreeHugger