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Gina Solomon’s Blog

"Antibacterial" Soaps: Buyer Beware!

Gina Solomon

Posted April 5, 2010

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I can be a fanatic about germs. I wash my hands thoroughly and frequently, and when I don't have access to a sink, I use an alcohol-based skin sanitizer. As a physician, I know that most germs are spread by hand-to-mouth or hand-to-nose contact. So good hand washing is the most important thing we can all do to protect ourselves and others from infection.

So it might seem odd for me to be warning people about the dangers of "antimicrobial" soaps. I should like them, shouldn't I?

The fact is that many of the liquid "antimicrobial" or "antibacterial" soaps on the market contain a chemical called Triclosan. Solid soaps that are sold as "deodorizing" can contain a related chemical called Triclocarban. Both of these chemicals are harmful, and worse still, they are ineffective.

Scientific studies have shown that soaps with Triclosan or Triclocarban are not any more effective at preventing disease than regular soap. These chemicals can penetrate the skin and enter our bodies -- according to the CDC, about 3/4 of Americans have residues of Triclosan in their bodies. Studies have shown that both chemicals are endocrine disruptors, interfering with hormones in our bodies. In male rats, Triclosan causes decreased sperm count, damage to the reproductive system, and disrupted production of androgens. The reason I care about male rats is that male humans have identical hormones and hormone-responses.

When these chemicals go down the drain, they are not effectively filtered out in the wastewater, so they contaminate rivers and streams. In addition to harming aquatic organisms, there is some evidence that they may help to promote the growth of drug resistent bacteria.

Yet it's hard to find a liquid soap these days without Triclosan. I find the stuff in the homes of my most eco-aware friends. I even found it by the sink in one of NRDC's offices!  (Yes, I talked to the office manager and they switched brands). People spend over a billion dollars per year on these products because they are marketed as if they're better than regular soap. What a rip-off!

Here's my advice:

  • Be a fanatic about regular handwashing, but use normal soap and water.
  • If you don't have access to running water, use a skin sanitizer.
  • Read the ingredients on your products, and get rid of anything containing Triclosan or Triclocarban. These chemicals are mostly in soap, but can also be in acne creams, cosmetics, and even some toothpastes!
  • If you want to look up products that contain these chemicals, check out the Household Products Database.

Check out NRDC's facts on so-called "antibacterial" soaps here. My colleague, Dr. Sarah Janssen, answers questions about these products here.

The FDA has been working since 1978 on a regulation that would remove Triclosan and Triclocarban from products, but it has never finalized the rule - which is why these chemicals are still sold legally. NRDC has been pressing FDA for action, and we are hoping FDA will make an announcement soon, so stay tuned!




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David MelisApr 5 2010 03:39 PM

Thank you for posting this. The hazards of the totallly unnecessary use of triclosan are serious. The very first post I put on my soap making blog was about how triclosan is showing up in the ocean food chain. Imagine how many hundreds of tons of that stuff gets washed down our drains every day! Scary.

Jim BullisApr 5 2010 03:56 PM

Thanks for this authoritative article.

How effective is cheap isopropyl alcohol compared with the much more expensive skin sanitizers?

Gina Solomon, MD, MPHApr 5 2010 04:39 PM

Most hand sanitizers contain slightly over 60% ethyl alcohol (ethanol). It is possible to use either ethanol (grain alcohol) or isopropyl alcohol to disinfect your hands. There are even recipes on the internet for "homemade" hand sanitizers. Some of these might have an unpleasant smell (using grain alcohol might make you smell like a distillery!) or might not have a texture that works as well, but they would probably be workable.

Using more concentrated alcohol (ie. 70% like you commonly find in rubbing alcohol) will be more drying and irritating to your hands, whereas more dilute than 60% will be less effective, so if you make it yourself, pay attention to the concentration of alcohol in the final product.

SharonApr 6 2010 02:03 AM

I just found this video on You Tube that really shows how germs and viruses spread. It is so cool. It's meant for kids but I even learned a lot!

Doug and Jan ParkerApr 16 2010 11:00 AM

Can you recommend specific brands which are safe to use; or what should we look for (we are fanatical label-readers!) when shopping for hand soap?

Thanx for the information!

Jane McClintockApr 16 2010 11:19 AM

Thanks for posting this. I have been concerned for several years about the anti-bacterial soaps in use at my daughters' nursery school, but every time I brought the issue up with the teachers or the president of the PTO, I was told that it's a state licensing requirement to use them. Your article finally motivated me to look up the licensing requirements, which say nothing about anti-bacterial soap. I have sent an email to the school director with a link to your blog as well as to the state regulations and I hope we can get rid of the anti-bacterial products once and for all.

On a related note, I have found the alcohol-based sanitizing gels very harsh on my skin, and I don't want them around where my toddler could get hold of them. I've been using the Cleanwell products that are based on essential oils instead and have been very happy with them. (I'm not affiliated in any way, just a satisfied customer.)

Gina Solomon, MD, MPHApr 19 2010 01:11 PM

Fanatical label readers are in luck when it comes to triclosan -- it's legally a pesticide, so it is required by law to be listed on the label. Triclocarban can sometimes be trickier because it's sometimes included as a 'deodorant' rather than an 'antibacterial', meaning it's not a 'pesticide" and doesn't need to be on the label (aren't these rules crazy?!) The Hazardous Substances Detabase can be helpful when you're trying to get information about chemicals. Check out the link below.

Alcohol-based sanitizers are very drying to the skin, and some people with sensitive skin have a rough time using them. I only use the alcohol sanitizers when I can't get to a sink with soap. Cleanwell does seem to be an effective alternative, and it doesn't contain alcohol, though it does smell of oregano, so it takes a little getting used to!

saloka jamesMay 18 2010 01:54 PM

Thank you for the informations.

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