By Dr. Mercola
A survey by the American Cleaning Institute and the industry-run Personal Care Products Council revealed that 74 percent of Americans use antibacterial soap.
Fifty-six percent of them use it regularly, and, reportedly, 75 percent of moms with children in the household said they would be "angry" if antibacterial soap was no longer on the market.1
This "anger," however, would be misplaced, since antibacterial soap manufacturers have been suggesting the products are necessary to fight germs, and insinuating they're superior to plain soap and water in keeping away illness, for years.
Such soaps may have their place, such as in an operating room prior to surgery, but they're being vastly overused in homes, schools, restaurants, and other settings with potentially devastating consequences.
Despite the reality, 84 percent of US adults surveyed said they have no health or environmental concerns about antibacterial soap.
The actual health and environmental risks of antibacterial soap have only relatively recently been uncovered, and they're still not widely known, at least among consumers. Hopefully, the tide is beginning to turn, however, as yet another study has shown no significant benefit to using antibacterial soap.
'No Significant Difference' Between Plain Soap and Antibacterial Soap
In December 2013, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed a rule stating that manufacturers must provide data to demonstrate that antibacterial soap is more effective than plain soap and water.
The current study examined this question by exposing 20 FDA-proposed bacterial strains to plain or antibacterial soaps.2
The bacterial strains included Escherichia coli, Listeria monocytogenes, and Salmonella enteritidis, among others, and the antibacterial soap used the same formulation as plain soap, but containing 0.3 percent triclosan (the most widely used antiseptic agent in soap, as the maximum concentration allowed by law).
The bacteria were exposed to the soaps in petri dishes for 20 seconds at 22°C (room temperature) and 40°C (warm temperature) in order to simulate hand-washing conditions typically used by adults.
The bacteria were also spread onto the hands of study volunteers, who then washed their hands for 30 seconds using either type of soap and warm temperature water. The researchers found:
"Antibacterial soap containing triclosan (0.3 percent) was no more effective than plain soap at reducing bacterial contamination when used under 'real-life' conditions."
It was only after the bacteria were soaked in antibacterial soap for nine hours that the triclosan-containing soap killed more bacteria than the plain soap – a clearly useless "benefit" for the average consumer.
The study's lead researcher noted that exaggerating the effectiveness of antibacterial products should be banned, as it can confuse consumers.3
You're Just as Likely to Get a Cough, Cold, Stomach 'Flu,' and Other Symptoms
Studies have shown that people who use antibacterial soaps and cleansers develop a cough, runny nose, sore throat, fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and other symptoms just as often as people who use regular soaps.4
Part of the reason for this is because most of these symptoms are actually caused by viruses, which antibacterial soaps can't kill. But even for symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea, which may be caused by bacteria, using antibacterial soaps will offer you no advantage over plain soap and water.5
So, the rational conclusion is antibacterial soaps are completely unnecessary for the purpose of washing away bacteria.
A 2007 systematic review published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases also confirmed that antibacterial soap containing triclosan did not provide any additional benefit compared with a non-antibacterial soap.6
Triclosan Is Harmful to Human Health
If it were simply a matter of antibacterial soap working about the same as plain soap and water, you might still opt for antibacterial soap due to personal preference.
However, know that when doing so you're most likely being exposed to the antibacterial chemical triclosan, which has been linked to concerns over antibiotic resistance and endocrine disruption.
Some animal studies showed that triclosan caused fetal bone malformations in mice and rats, which may hint at hormonal effects.
One 2006 study found that triclosan induces changes in the thyroid hormone-mediated process of metamorphosis of the North American bullfrog,7 and a 2009 study demonstrated triclosan significantly decreases circulating concentrations of the thyroid hormone thyroxine (T4) in male rats.8
Triclosan has also been found to cause estrogenic activities in human breast cancer cells, which may stimulate the growth and development of cancer cells.9 The chemical has also been found to impair muscle function in both humans and animals,10 and is linked to an increase in allergies among children.11
It's even been found to help staph bacteria colonize in the human nose. Of 90 participants tested, 41 percent had detectable levels of triclosan in their snot, and this presence, the researchers found, can double a person's risk of carrying and spreading the staph infection.12
Its prevalence is part of the problem. Studies show triclosan penetrates your skin and enters your bloodstream much easier than was once thought,13 and it's now found in the majority of Americans. As noted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG):14
"Despite the absence of efficacy data, manufacturers have aggressively marketed antibacterial soaps to the American public. As a result of widespread use of such soaps, 75 percent of Americans have triclosan in their bodies, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data…
Triclosan has been found in pregnant women… in cord blood… and in breast milk… indicating that triclosan exposures start from the first moments of life.
A pilot study found triclocarban [another antibacterial chemical] in a third of urine samples collected from American adults with no known triclocarban exposure… The exposures would likely be much higher among consumers who buy triclocarban products.
New data point to the risks of triclosan and triclocarban to human health due to their endocrine-disrupting potential, indicating that each and every non-medical use of these potent chemicals must be scrutinized from public health and safety point of view."
Antibiotic Resistance and Environmental Threats
Triclosan also shows evidence of harm in the environment. When you wash your hands, that triclosan in your antibacterial soap goes down the drain, and small quantities persist in water even after treatment at sewage plants.15
It's been frequently detected in US streams and other bodies of water, where it's been found to affect algae's ability to perform photosynthesis.16,17 Once in the environment, it may also be travelling up the food chain and accumulating to a concerning degree. As Smithsonian magazine reported:18
"The chemical is also fat-soluble — meaning that it builds up in fatty tissues — so scientists are concerned that it can biomagnify, appearing at greater levels in the tissues of animals higher up the food chain, as the triclosan of all the plants and animals below them is concentrated.
Evidence of this possibility was turned up in 2009, when surveys of bottlenose dolphins off the coast of South Carolina and Florida found concerning levels of the chemical in their blood."
As mentioned, triclosan may also be contributing to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The chemical isn't only found in antibacterial soap; it's also used in detergents, body wash, toothpaste, and even cutting boards and lipstick. All of this exposure adds up and may be offering bacteria an opportunity to build up resistance. As reported by Scientific American:19
"Laboratory studies on bacteria exposed to triclosan demonstrate evidence of cross-resistance to critically important antibiotics including erythromycin, ciprofloxacin, ampicillin, and gentamicin. Further, there is evidence that resistance to triclosan itself exists in Salmonella enterica, Staphylococcus aureus, streptococcus, Escherichia coli, and other species of bacteria.
Strains of Mycobacterium tuberculosis tolerant to triclosan have also showed resistance to the drug isoniazid (INH), which is used to treat tuberculosis.
Although the overuse of antibiotics in humans and livestock is a greater contributor to the public health crisis of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the potential increased risk of antibiotic resistance from the use of antimicrobial chemicals is unnecessary."
Kids Getting Poisoned by Hand Sanitizer
Using alcohol-based hand sanitizers may be suggested as an alternative to triclosan-containing antibacterial soap, but such products are not more effective than washing with plain hand soap and water. They can be useful in a pinch, but be aware that they don't work if your hands are visibly dirty – and they may also be hazardous to children.
In 2013, US poison centers had more than 16,000 calls about children under 12 eating hand sanitizers – a 400 percent increase from 2010.20 The gels often contain appealing scents (like strawberry or vanilla) and may come in brightly colored bottles. Some even contain glitter, making them appealing to kids.
However, hand sanitizer may be 40 percent to 95 percent alcohol, so even a small amount can be toxic to kids. Many schools are now including hand sanitizers on children's school supply lists, so be sure to talk to your children about the dangers (and if they're too young to understand them, refrain from sending it in your child's backpack).
You may also want to discuss the potential hazards with your child's teachers, as there have been cases of children "drinking" squirts of hand sanitizer from large bottles sitting out in classrooms.
Another under-recognized risk of hand sanitizer concerns the penetration-enhancing chemicals they may contain and the endocrine-disrupting chemical bisphenol-A (BPA). BPA is found in many cash-register receipts, and research shows using hand sanitizer prior to handling receipts may increase BPA absorption by up to 185 times.21
Tips for Effective Hand Washing
Hand washing is a simple way to reduce your exposure to potentially disease-causing germs and reduce your chances of getting sick. While not the only factor (the health of your immune system also plays a major role), it can drastically reduce the germs that get access to your body, especially when you do it at key times, such as before eating or touching your mouth, eyes, and nose, and after using the restroom or visiting public areas.
Hand washing needs to be done correctly, however, in order to be truly effective for disease control. Simply rinsing your hands with water, or giving a quick scrub with soap, is not enough to remove germs. In one study, only 5 percent of people washed their hands in a way that would actually kill infection and illness-causing germs.22 So, to make sure you're actually removing the germs when you wash your hands, follow these guidelines:
- Use warm, running water, and a mild soap (avoid antibacterial soap)
- Work up a good lather, all the way up to your wrists, and scrubbing for at least 15 or 20 seconds (most people only wash for about 6 seconds)
- Make sure you cover all surfaces, including the backs of your hands, wrists, between your fingers, and around and below your fingernails
- Rinse thoroughly under running water
- In public places, use a paper towel to open the door as a protection from germs that the handles may harbor
Keep in mind that your skin is your primary barrier against germs, so obsessive-compulsive washing, especially in dry environments that typically exist for most in the winter months when the heat is on, can actually increase your risk of getting sick by drying out your skin and creating small cuts or tears.
So keep a balance — avoid washing your hands to the point of irritating your skin, as dry, cracked areas are a perfect entryway for germs. Finally, if you want a natural alternative to antibacterial cleaners around your home, try 3 percent hydrogen peroxide and vinegar. Simply put each liquid into a separate spray bottle, then spray the surface with one followed by the other.
In tests run at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, pairing the two mists killed virtually all Salmonella, Shigella, and E. coli bacteria on heavily contaminated food and surfaces when used in this fashion, making this spray combination more effective at killing these potentially lethal bacteria than chlorine bleach or any commercially available kitchen cleaner. The best results came from using one mist right after the other – it is 10 times more effective than using either spray by itself and more effective than mixing the vinegar and hydrogen peroxide in one sprayer.