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.