Germ-Resistant Clothes: Pick or Pass?
Companies are embedding antimicrobial compounds into everything from
toothpaste and hand soaps to socks, underwear, and workout clothing to
kill germs and odors. While going to this extra germ-fighting effort
might seem smart at first glance, scientists are finding that some
antimicrobial chemicals are actually harming humans' thyroids and
The kicker? Many antimicrobials used in pricier consumer products aren't any better than traditional soap-and-water washing.
Adding to the rip-off angle, the Swedish government recently analyzed
clothing impregnated with the antibacterial agents silver, triclosan,
and trichlorocarban and found that the germ- and odor-killing compounds
often wash away very quickly, sometimes after just three washings.
Because of the rapid wash-out and health threats posed by the chemicals,
a Swiss-commissioned report actually suggests companies phase out the
use of antimicrobials in clothing.
Researchers with the Swedish Chemical Agency tested clothing treated
with antimicrobials and measured how much remained in the clothing after
three and ten standard washings. After ten rounds through the washing
machine, about half of the triclosan and triclocarban in treated
clothing had washed out. Results for silver were more variable—some
products shed half of the antimicrobial material after just three
washings, while others shed just 2 percent after ten washings. While it
fared better, that still doesn't mean it's safe. Silver is often used in
nanoparticle form—extremely tiny particles that can cross the
Some high-profile public health experts warn against buying products
treated with nanoparticles because the technology has never been
thoroughly tested for effects on human health.
The levels of washed-out germ- and odor-killers are also troubling
because most will wind up in the environment after passing through water
treatment plants, presenting risks to wildlife, humans, and the food
system. The SCA also worries that people, especially children with
developing systems, could absorb the microbial compounds.
To avoid products treated with these potentially harmful antimicrobial
substances, avoid homeware products and clothing marketed as anti-odor,
antimicrobial, or antibacterial, and avoid personal care products that
list triclosan or trichlorocarban on the ingredients label.
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