One of the reasons that many people are hesitant about switching to natural products, even if they have sensitive skin that flares up, dries, itches or flakes when they use proprietary cleaning products, is the issue of germs. Do natural cleaning products actually manage to kill germs adequately? How can you protect yourself against food poisoning, dysentery and all those other bacterial diseases.
This belief is understandable. In the past, when natural home-made cleaners were the only option available, the incidence of cholera and all that ilk was much higher. However, it wasn’t the cleaners that were at fault. The real problem was that germs were unknown to science at that stage (or practically unknown). As late as the mid-1860s when Mrs Isabella Beeton was writing her landmark tome on household management – which included recipes for cleaning products – “germ theory” was still hotly debated (Mrs Beeton, incidentally, did believe in germs and some of her theories reflect this, in spite of some carpet cleaning recipes calling for ox-gall as an ingredient). This was an era when doctors cheerfully wore the same apron for a week while doing surgeries, and they could go from performing a post-mortem to delivering a baby without washing hands in between.
Even earlier, people believed that bathing was unhealthy and that wearing linen underclothing would keep you healthy… as long as you changed it about once a week or so and used plenty of eau-de-cologne.
Much of the bacterial diseases that were rife in the past were cleaned up adequately with what was recommended by pioneers like Lister, Pasteur and Florence Nightingale: fresh air, sunshine, regular washing hands, etc. with soap, and sterilizing things that need it (e.g. surgical implements) with boiling water. Add in decent plumbing throughout cities so you’re not drinking water that somebody has emptied a chamber pot into, plus modern vaccination programmes and antibiotics, and you eliminate even more causes of bacterial disease.
The modern trend to have special anti-bacterial, disinfectant and germicidal ingredients in nearly every household cleaning product on the market comes, largely, from the efforts of the advertising world. While it does indeed make sense to have a higher standard of hygiene in a hospital setting, our homes do not need to be quite that germ-free. We are not trying to perform surgeries in our bathrooms, after all. But in the early 20th century as knowledge about germs and bacteria spread, marketers saw their opportunity and fed the general public (especially middle-class housewives who had their occupation limited to keeping house, had money to spend and had appearances to maintain) the idea that the tiniest germ lurking in the most obscure part of your house will bring down your children with some fearsome disease – and so you should spend money on Brand X to “protect” your family and fight “hidden dirt”.
However, most natural cleaning products are more than adequate at getting rid of germs. Soap and alcohol are fairly effective disinfectants, as is boiling water. Vinegar kills mould spores and also bacteria – the reason why it is used to pickle vegetables. Essential oils, especially oregano, lavender, tea tree and pine are even better disinfectants, when used in concentrated form, than hospital grade lab-created disinfectants.
In fact, all you really need to do to kill bacteria (aside from poisoning them with alcohol or soap, or denaturing their proteins with boiling water) is to remove one of the things they need to survive and reproduce. Bacteria are living creatures and require food, water and warmth. Remove the food (in the form of dirt – and we’re talking about ordinary visible dirt here, not mysterious “hidden dirt”) and/or the water (by thorough drying and by regular airing) and the germs will starve to death.
It is true that your environment will not be 100% germ-free. However, your body has more than adequate defences to fight off invading bacteria. If we stopped using commercial cleaners and stuck to good old natural cleaners like soap, water and the rest, and ate a diet rich in immune-boosting fruit and vegetables, we’d be better off than if we kept eating muck food, stressing out about germs and sloshing disinfectant all over the show.
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