Whole Living Daily

Ask Mindy: What's the Deal with Antimicrobial Towels?

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Got a green dilemma? Ask me! I'll be answering a new question each week.

Q: What is used to treat cotton towels to make them antimicrobial? Bath towels end up all over your body, so I’m nervous about using them. I have multiple chemical allergies. —Sandy Wagoner

Whether it’s a towel, athletic wear, or hand soap, a product boasting “antibacterial” treatments or ingredients ought to be avoided. (The only exception is the use of antimicrobial soap to protect people with weakened immune systems.) But I don't believe there is a ever a need for antimicrobial fabrics.

The antimicrobial treatment used on fabrics and plastics is known as Microban, which contains the active ingredient triclosan. For years, the Americal Medical Association, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and the World Health Organization have advised against regular hand washing with antibacterial/antimicrobial soaps containing triclosan because they contribute to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. And recently, as reported in this recent overview in Environmental Health Perspectives, triclosan has come under scrutiny for many human and animal health risks, including the release of carcinogenic, hormone-disrupting dioxins into the environment.

Plus, doctors say, it’s no more effective in getting rid of germs than washing with plain soap and warm water. That’s why antibacterials are on my top ten list of cosmetic ingredients to avoid.

Using a Microban-coated towel may provoke skin irritation, including contact dermatitis, as discussed in a study published by the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Anbitiocs at Tufst University last year. With your sensitive skin, it’s best to choose textiles that are free not only of Microban but also of stain-, water-, and moth-resistant coatings, all of which can provoke irritation and allergies.

Mindy Pennybacker is Whole Living’s eco expert. She regularly answers readers' green-living questions. She is also editor of GreenerPenny.com and author of Do One Green Thing: Saving the Earth Through Simple, Everyday Choices.

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Comments (7)

  • Really this is quite shocking for me. All medical soap ads on TV have suggested to use soap with triclosan to fight the bacterie. Never once think that this can worsen my health. So glad to read this post.

  • The reason the coatings are used is to stop smells and growth of pathogens. This is only normally a problem if the towel will be packed up while still wet or damp, such as when camping etc.

    It is also a consideration when in a tropical setting. Trust me, when I travel it's better to use these than risk some other illness due to paranoia about the chemical itself. It's a trade off I know, but a well considered one. Thanks

  • I am really comfortable with the antimicrobial towels when I go to gym or sports, I think it is quite a essential for athletes.

    Thanks for your explanation.

  • I am a athlete.So every time I need towel.It helps me to refresh myself.That's why antimicrobial towel is awesome.

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  • Hi Mindy,

    I just read your blog regarding antimicrobial towels. Did you realize studies have shown bacteria such as Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA)can survive and remain viable to cause infection on regular cotton fabric for more than 20 days and on regular Polyester fabric for more than 40 days. Vancomycin Resistant Enterococcus (VRE) can survive on both fabrics for more than 80 days. These two types of bacteria cause very common types of infection that are categorized as healthcare associated infections (HAI's) that kill 99,000+ people in the U.S. alone. HAI's also cost the healthcare industry billions of dollars each year in additional cost of treatment. Soft surfaces (patient gowns, bed linens, towels, curtains, furniture fabric, uniforms and other clothing, etc.) are well known sources that harbor infection causing bacteria, fungi and viruses. A study at a U.S. university hospital revealed 52% of the nurses uniforms tested positive for MRSA or VRE or both by the end of their shift. Physicians Lab coats showed a 79% positive test result. It was also found that more than half of those that tested positive, also tested positive within the first 3 hours of their shift. So those staff people were spreading their contamination from patient to patient and everywhere they touched or brushed up against for the last 9 hours of their shift. Worse yet, more than 20% of those that tested positive in the first 3 hours also tested positive before their shift began, indicating their home laundering was not sufficiently killing the contamination. Further, VERY FEW hospital and clinic staff actually remove their uniforms before leaving the workplace. You will commonly see them hop in their car, on the metro bus/rail, in a taxi, etc and head to their favorite fast food or dine in restaurant, bar, the bank or ATM, the grocery store, big box retailer, their favorite shopping mall, or theater. Everywhere they touch or brush up against has the potential to spread serious and even deadly infection to others in the community. They eventually will take this contamination to their own home and expose their family and friends to this potential hazard.

    Please let me inform you and your readers there are many different kinds of antimicrobial products on the market today. Many of which I wouldn't recommend either due to health hazards or due to the ineffectiveness of their product's antimicrobial activity over time. If the fabric is antimicrobial due to being sprayed or immersed with an antimicrobial agent, it will wash out in the laundry over time; some products in as little as 5 home washings while others claim 'up to' 2 years. Our company has done extensive research throughout the industry to find the most effective and longest lasting antimicrobial products for the market. We found antimicrobial towels that use X-Static (Noble Fiber Technologies, Inc.) brand fabrics. We were so impressed with their fabrics that we have actually incorporated their fabrics into our product lines. Our WINGS brand antimicrobial towel sets are very soft to the touch and have X-Static Pure Silver Fiber technology weaved directly into the fabric as the textile is made. The X-Static fiber uses 99.9% pure metallic silver over a nylon core. This silver fiber thread ionizes when it comes in contact with moisture and oxygen. These silver ions are absorbed through the cell membrane of bacteria and cause a disruption in the bacterial metabolism killing the bacteria. Independent testing has shown it to kill 99.91% of bacteria and other microbes (fungal and viruses) within 4 hours on contact. Killing the microbes also helps the fabric to be odor resistant. Because the Silver fiber is weaved directly into the fabric, it is effective for the life of the product, more than 200 professional launderings. Silver is very hypo-allergenic. We inquired about the environmental effects of using Silver. We found that more Silver is released from a Silver fork being washed in a dishwasher than the amount released from our products over the life of the products. Another very important issue is our WINGS brand products don't contribute to antibiotic resistance of bacteria at all. You and your readers are free to check out our website (still indeveopment) at http://nurseangelsclothing.com. Feel free to contact us for additional information and resources. We started this company, working as Registered Nurses, with a commitment to enhancing the healthcare industry, nursing, patients' health, and the health of our communities across the country and on a global scale.

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