Why The Next Wave Of Cleaning Products May Actually Kill Less Bacteria

mbg Sustainability Editor By Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability Editor
Emma is the Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care."

Image by Ina Peters / Stocksy

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When it comes to cleaning your home, doing too good of a job is definitely possible. Using cleaners that set out to kill off all surface bacteria could leave you with an over-sterilized space.

"The worst thing you can do is try and kill everything," explains Simon Lax, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher at MIT who studies the relationship between the bacteria on our skin and the spaces we inhabit. "You're not going to, and the only things that are going to survive at the end of all that is probably not the stuff you want to be interacting with the most." Case in point: There's now reason to believe that harsh antimicrobial cleaners could be contributing to a rise in allergies and asthma.

It sounds counterintuitive, but instead of labeling all bacteria as "bad," most people would be better off thinking about how to bring more beneficial bacteria, viruses, and fungi into our homes—especially if you have kids. (Lax goes as far as to say that the biggest predictor of whether someone has severe asthma or allergies is whether they had a dog growing up.) "The more outdoor bacteria you're bringing in and the more complex microbial assemblages you're interacting with—it does seem like that pays dividends down the road for health," he says. "That's something we're just beginning to understand."

Jack Gilbert, Ph.D., another microbial researcher and the author of Dirt Is Good: The Advantage of Germs for Your Child's Developing Immune System, agrees. He's wary of over-sterilizing his own home and only calls on heavy-duty cleaners if someone in his family is sick. Otherwise, soap and water do the trick, and they're better for his kids' immune development in the long run.

One approach to gentler cleaning that leaves some bacteria behind? Vinegar.

One way to disinfect without killing off as much beneficial bacteria is to use vinegar, the old faithful of the kitchen cabinet. Vinegar gets its star power from its high acidity, which can change a surface's pH level to be less tolerable to certain types of bacteria. White vinegar, in particular, has long been a staple of homemade household cleaners—and for good reason. It gets rid of grime but makes for a gentler clean than some of the really heavy-duty stuff that zaps all bacteria. But vinegar comes with a stinky downside: Its scent isn't for everyone. While you can add essential oils to your homemade vinegar mixes to mask the distinct odor, they don't always quite do the trick.

So as the green cleaning world grows, brands are starting to sell vinegar-based cleansers in their own signature scent combinations. Aunt Fannie's, a cleaning product line founded in 2012, now sells cleaning vinegars in scents like eucalyptus, lavender, and lemon. The Laundress, another popular company that sells surface cleaners in addition to laundry and fabric care, offers vinegars that smell like "a fresh blend of eucalyptus with notes of pine and hints of rose, lily of the valley, bergamot, ylang-ylang, and thyme." Schmidt's, best known for its natural deodorants and soaps, is the latest name to hop on the vinegar train with its first foray into home care: Laundry detergents and multipurpose vinegar sprays that are now available in Whole Foods Market. Schmidt's sprays have notes of cedarwood and patchouli: both of which sound much more pleasant than taking a whiff of a pickle jar.

Though these vinegars are newly done-up, they still feel like nods to the past. Our grandmothers (and possibly their grandmothers?) used the ingredient. It's tried-and-true. As for the future of healthy, nontoxic cleaners, some companies are now proposing probiotics.

How probiotics could be the next frontier of day-to-day cleaning.

Earlier this year, Counter Culture unveiled its line of probiotic all-purpose cleaners, floor cleaners, and air and fabric fresheners at Expo West. Founder Michelle Perkins created the product in collaboration with scientists who were using probiotics on farms to clean out chicken and pig coops in a way that lived up to organic standards. After years of R&D, they adapted the industrial product into a smell-good one that's safe to use at home.

The resulting brew is "like a kombucha for your surfaces," Perkins says. It contains 13 strains of bacteria that are fermented for six to eight weeks until they start to act like surfactants, the chemical compounds that help traditional cleaners latch onto grime. "Rather than killing all the bacteria, we're putting down good bacteria that will crowd out the bad—similar to how it works in your stomach."

Aunt Fannie's is another brand that uses fermented bacteria in a probiotic line of products. Its key ingredient is fermented Lactobacillus, a bacteria found in some yogurts and in dietary supplements. The idea is that if eating beneficial bacteria is good for your almighty gut microbiome, introducing it to your home should be good for your skin microbiome—which, new research continues to find, can be a predictor of overall health.

It's important to note, though, that if you have a compromised immune system or feel a cold coming on, you might want to err on the side of caution and choose a more thorough cleaner. And if you are trying out a probiotic brew, you'll want to avoid unsealed wood or stone surfaces since they can get stained easily. As with any new cleaner, it's a good idea to just test it out on a small patch of surface first.

While Gilbert thinks more research still needs to be done to find out the nitty-gritty of how exactly these companies' bacteria works on surfaces, he thinks they could be on to something. Lax agrees, saying, "Bacteria as a whole are not something to be scared of. I think the idea in general of encouraging good bacteria instead of killing all bacteria is a good direction to head in."

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