Myth: Antibacterial Soap Is Cleaner

Soap Opera! Are Antibacterial Cleaners Worth the Drama?

A new scandal in hygiene has erupted. “95 percent of people wash their hands improperly: Are you one of them?” questioned a recent CBS news headline. Or, as the USA Today more delicately put it: “The art of hand washing has yet to be mastered.”

So, how does one master this apparently formidable art?

For many people, using antibacterial soap may seem like the trick. If the job is to protect ourselves from harmful bacteria, after all, the notion of “antibacterial” does have some appeal. But antibacterial soap, like a hired gun or an indiscriminate lover, is out to get ’em all—good, neutral, and bad bacteria alike—and using it could have consequences beyond the sink.

The Bold and the Not-So Beautiful: Triclosan and Triclocarban

So what exactly are these devil-may-care agents? According to a Tufts University research group, there are two main types of antibacterials in cleaning products. One acts rapidly to destroy bacteria, but then quickly evaporates or breaks down leaving no active residue. The other kind uses synthetic chemicals, most often triclosan or triclocarban, which leave long-acting residues on the cleaning surface. That second residue-breeding category is the one concerning environmental and public health scientists alike.

Triclosan and triclocarban show up in a veritable cornucopia of consumer goods (we’re talking 140 kinds of consumer products, according to an Alliance for the Great Lakes report), ranging from liquid hand soaps to toothpastes to household cleaning products. Triclosan has been such a hot consumer commodity that popular theory is that it comprises 75 percent of our liquid soap use. A more scientific figure comes from Johns Hopkins researcher Rolf Halden, PhD, who estimates that we’ve been using almost 1 million pounds annually for half a century. Meanwhile, a Tufts fact sheet suggests triclocarban is included in 30 percent of bar soaps.

That said, the products that contain them aren’t the only places these pesky chems turn up…

When we wash our hands with antibacterial soap, the water and soap residue go down the drain and wind up in our waterways. So it’s no surprise that, according to the same Alliance report, both Ts are often present in treated drinking water. Breast milk and fish, too, according to Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health research. Also from Hopkins: Triclocarban has an estimated half-life of one and a half years in aquatic sediments, and 75 percent of it persists through wastewater treatment. The University of Arizona BioDesign Institute notes that the Ts are found in 60 percent of U.S. streams and rivers. Meanwhile, a CDC investigation detected triclosan in the urine of nearly 75 percent of the people tested. It also can migrate from cleaning surfaces to food stuffs, according to a University of Lethbridge study.

And we should care about all those occurrences because…? “We don’t know enough about how [triclosan] is impacting our health and the environment,” says Alliance for the Great Lakes research manager Olga Lyandres, “yet we continue to use it all over the place.” Whether that’s a good idea or not is a topic of interest for many scientists.

The Guiding Light of Ongoing Research

A bevy of studies have identified potential risks associated with the 2Ts. (Keyword is “potential.” It’s important to note that the jury is still out on many of these issues, because research is still underway and more rigorous long-term analysis is needed.)

  • Antimicrobial resistance: According to an American Medical Association report, increasing data suggest that exposure to antibacterial/antimicrobial agents could trigger an organism’s resistance to them. (Consider this recent Loyola University study, for one.) The report adds that other studies (like the Spanish National Research Council’s) have shown that bacteria that have developed such resistance to antimicrobials may also develop resistance to antibiotics.
  • Endocrine disruption: The EPA, which regulates triclosan as a pesticide (versus the FDA, which regulates its use in things like soap), has acknowledged that some research has shown that triclosan affects endocrine function, aka, alters hormonal, metabolic, and reproductive processes. In light of data like that, the agency plans to launch a new review of the chemical this year—a full ten years ahead of schedule.
  • Increased allergy rates: Separate studies conducted at University of Michigan and Johns Hopkins Children’s Center have linked higher levels of triclosan in the body with higher odds of allergy or hay fever diagnosis in the under-18 set.
  • Muscular effects: Researchers at the University of California-Davis together with the University of Colorado-Denver found that triclosan “hinders muscle contractions at a cellular level,” noting weakened muscular and cardiac strength in mice and slower swimming in fish.
  • Aquatic ecosystem impact: An Alliance report cites studies that have shown triclosan has a toxic effect on fish crustaceans, algae, and fish embryos.

All that begs the question, is antibacterial soap worth it?

Simply Avoiding the Drama

Though soap that’s “antibacterial” is indeed a selling point for many consumers, several governing agencies and medical authorities not only recognize that additional research is needed, but also indicate that using antibacterial soap is no more effective than regular soap.

And away we go…

  • The FDA states on its consumer update page that studies linking triclosan to altered hormone regulation and antibiotic resistance, “merit further review.” Moreover, “the agency does not have evidence that triclosan in antibacterial soaps and body washes provides any benefit over washing with regular soap and water.” One noted exception is toothpaste, because research has shown that triclosan may help prevent gingivitis.
  • A CDC fact sheet says more research is needed on triclosan’s impact on human health, and the Mayo Clinic advises that “antibacterial soap is no more effective at killing germs than is regular soap.”
  • In an Archives of Dermatology article, AMA scientists write, “Despite their recent proliferation in consumer products, the use of antimicrobial agents…in consumer products has not been studied extensively. No data exist to support their efficacy when used in such products or any need for them.”

PersonalSideWhew! Never knew a little hand soap could cause such a ruckus, huh? Neither did we. Oh, and if you’re still wondering how one does “properly” wash one’s hands…here’s the quick and dirty from the CDC: Wash with soap and rub vigorously in water for 20 seconds, or, about as much time as it takes to hum (or yodel) “Happy Birthday.”

EcoMyth Outcome: Myth Busted

Research shows that using antibacterial soap chemicals like triclosan and triclocarban do not, in fact, get you cleaner. Meanwhile, many studies indicate they may pose risks to public health and the environment. While more long-term research is needed, the general consensus is that there is no reason for consumers to use antibacterial soaps.

One Green Thing

Opt for good ol’ fashioned, plain soap that doesn’t contain triclosan or triclocarban in its ingredient list.