Many labels on hand soap in a typical supermarket proclaim that the bar, liquid, or gel within is “antibacterial.”
That’s no lie. Most antibacterial soaps contain a substance called triclosan, a potent antimicrobial agent.
In fact, it’s so potent that it’s potentially a disaster for both personal and planetary health. An investigation by the Environmental Working Group concluded that:
“Triclosan is linked to liver and inhalation toxicity, and low levels of triclosan may disrupt thyroid function… Wastewater treatment does not remove all of the chemical, which means it ends up in our lakes, rivers, and water sources. That’s especially unfortunate since triclosan is very toxic to aquatic life.”
But hey, one does what one must. After all, germs are hard to kill.
Well, no. New research (1) in the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy has found that hand cleaners laced with triclosan are no better than regular soap at killing germs.
In a study published Sept. 15, Korean University researchers set out to simulate typical hand-washing conditions.
They exposed 20 types of bacteria to regular soap and to soap containing 0.3 percent triclosan. That’s the maximum legal concentration for hand soaps.
The exposure lasted for 20 seconds, roughly the time of a typical hand-washing session.
To be thorough, they did another experiment. They had volunteers dip their hands in a bacterial solution and then wash their hands with either regular soap or soap with triclosan
In both experiments, the result was the same. The researchers concluded:
“Antibacterial soap containing triclosan (0.3 percent) was no more effective than plain soap at reducing bacterial contamination when used under ‘real life’ conditions. The present study provides practical information that may prove useful for both industry and governments.”
I’m not a polite, dignified antimicrobial researcher, so I’ll put it a bit more plainly.
It should be illegal to put this stuff into personal care products, yet hand soap, body wash, shampoo, and even toothpaste all still contain triclosan.
According to its website, the FDA is “engaged in a comprehensive scientific and regulatory review of all the available safety and effectiveness data” regarding triclosan.
But given that this nasty chemical doesn’t work — on hands, anyway — don’t wait on a glacial government investigation.
The Korean researchers noted in their investigation that fewer products contain the chemical these days. It appears manufacturers are quietly removing it.
(Or not so quietly — a Google search for triclosan brings up the proud proclamation, “Crest Pro-Health toothpastes are formulated to deliver the same plaque and gingivitis benefits and more without triclosan.”)
Until the government or market forces ban it entirely, check ingredient labels. Don’t buy anything that contains triclosan or its close chemical cousin, triclocarban.
Beyond this, be wary of harsh chemicals of all kinds that promise antibacterial “benefit.” The two potential problems with constant use of antimicrobial substances are:
- The chemicals themselves may be toxic to people or environments
- Shielding people — especially children — from exposure to common environmental microbes deprives their immune systems of an opportunity to “learn” which bugs are harmful and which are harmless or even beneficial. That may set them up for a lifetime of immune dysfunction. The idea that too-sterile environments can harm long-term health — the so-called “hygiene hypothesis” — is becoming more widely accepted by researchers each year.
How clean you keep yourself, your children, and your home is ultimately your own decision. But whatever level of cleanliness you choose — achieve it without these useless, hazardous chemicals.
Editor, Natural Health Solutions
(1) S.A. Kim, et. al. Bacterial effects of triclosan in soap both in vitro and in vivo. Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy. Published online Sept. 15, 2015