There have been many articles written about the psychological effects of designing in wood, with more ‘biophilic’ interiors shown to have physical and mental benefits, from lowering stress and blood pressure to increasing positive social interactions1. But could wood design also provide us with more sanitary enviroments? Easing our anxieties around catching disease in a post-covid world? Here we examine how the unique physical and chemical properties of wood could create a cleaner and healthier future.
The Use of Wood in Hygienically Significant Areas
Many species of tree have been shown to have antimicrobial effects whilst living, but is this transferred when the wood is incorporated into a product? The answer to this depends on the species, processing and treatment of the wood.
For example, the physical antimicrobial properties of wood can only be utilised if the wood is either unfinished or has a natural finish, e.g. beeswax. This preserves the porosity and microscopic structure of the wood surface, the porosity traps bacteria within the wood, preventing them being transferred to new surfaces and causing cross-contamination. The microbes also cannot colonise the wood to become present on the surface again, as natural tannins in the wood act as potent antimicrobials. Of course if a varnish or lacquer is used, the wood effectively becomes a plastic surface, where bacteria and viruses can survive for a long time and has one of the greatest potentials for cross contamination.
In fact, when comparing an untreated wooden surface to steel, glass and plastic, wood outperformed all for preventing cross-contamination2. This demonstrates the potential of wood to be used in hygienically sensitive settings such as kitchens, high touch areas, and even hospitals.
Definition: Any of various soluble, astringent, complex, phenolic substances of plant origin. They consist of gallic acid derivatives. 3
The potential of wood to create a healthier world does not end there. Natural tannins, potentially harvested from waste wood pulp, have been shown to have potent antimicrobial, antitumor, antidiabetic and probiotic effects 4. The use of these in more food products, as opposed to man-made flavourings – often derived from crude oil – could potentially increase the health of a population, all whilst using a more sustainable and environmentally friendly ingredient.
The sheer variety of wood-derived tannins also gives scope for their use in cleaning products and medication, with some being particularly effective against clinically significant bacteria such as Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)5. However, further research would be needed to reveal the true potential of tannins for these uses.
- Nyrud. A. Q., Bringslimark. T., (2010). ‘IS INTERIOR WOOD USE PSYCHOLOGICALLY BENEFICIAL? A REVIEW OF PSYCHOLOGICAL RESPONSES TOWARD WOOD’. Wood and Fibre Science. 42(2). pp 202-218
- Munir M.T., Pailhories H., Eveillard M., Aviat F., Lepelletier D., Belloncle C., Federighi M. (2019). ‘Antimicrobial Characteristics of Untreated Wood: Towards a Hygienic Environment’. Health. 2019;11:152–170. doi: 10.4236/health.2019.112014
- Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). ‘Tannin’. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved August 28, 2020, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tannin
- Molino. S., Casanova. N. A., Henares. J. A. R., Miyakawa. M. E. F., (2019). ‘Natural Tannin Wood Extracts as a Potential Food Ingredient in the Food Industry’. J. Agric. Food Chem. 2020. 68. 2836−2848. DOI: 10.1021/acs.jafc.9b00590
- Pailhoriès, H., Munir, M., Aviat, F., Federighi, M., Belloncle, C., & Eveillard, M. (2017). ‘Oak in Hospitals, the Worst Enemy of Staphylococcus aureus?’. Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology, 38(3), 382-384. doi:10.1017/ice.2016.304