Antibacterial Soap’s Dirty Secret

Antibacterial Soap's Dirty Secret

When you’re shopping for hand soap, what kind do you reach for? If you’re like 74 percent of Americans, you’re likely buying antibacterial soap – and that’s a big mistake.

The FDA has recently released information that shows that antibacterial soap isn’t any better at killing germs than regular soap, and what’s more, it contains a dangerous chemical that you probably don’t want anywhere near you or your family.

What’s the Deal with Antibacterial Soap?

Antibacterial soap for over-the-counter use was first patented just a few decades ago, in 1984. The idea was to create a soap that not only cleaned your hands but also killed potentially harmful bacteria and other microbes on contact, thus reducing the risk of infection.

While it seemed like a good idea on paper, there are several problems associated with antibacterial soap, the most newsworthy of which is the presence of triclosan, an antibacterial and antifungal agent that is used not only in antibacterial soap but also in toothpaste and even some toys.

According to a blog post by Mae Wu, a senior attorney on NRDC’s health team, the presence of triclosan in antibacterial soaps was a bit of a fluke. In 1978, the FDA proposed a rule to exclude triclosan from soaps, but because it was never actually finalized, triclosan ended up in cleaning products all over the market.

And it’s too bad. Animal studies have shown that prolonged exposure to triclosan may alter the way some hormones work. We don’t yet know how triclosan affects humans, particularly in the long term, but ongoing studies seem to suggest that triclosan exposure may lead to skin cancer.

Triclosan and its antibacterial properties also tends to wipe out bacteria regardless of type, including good bacteria, notes Dr. Serena Goldstein.

“Bacteria is part of our ecosystem and serves a purpose,” she says. “Constantly killing off bacteria throws us out of balance and reduces our ability to deal with outside germs.”

And to top it all off, when it’s not killing off good bacteria, it’s creating ultra-resistant super-bacteria that don’t respond to antibiotics. And this, as the World Health Organization acknowledged, is a huge problem.

“Antibacterial soaps kill 99 percent, or 99.9 percent of germs- ultimately never 100 percent,” explains Goldstein. “So the strongest germs (think Darwin survival) survive and make super bacteria, such as in the cases of MRSA- Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus.”

The FDA has officially stated that, “There isn’t enough science to show that over-the-counter (OTC) antibacterial soaps are better at preventing illness than washing with plain soap and water.”

It’s time to trash these concoctions for good.

What’s the Best Soap Option?

The FDA recently issued a final rule under which over-the-counter antibacterial soaps containing triclosan – and 18 other dangerous chemicals — can no longer be marketed in the U.S. It’ll take a year before triclosan is completely off the market (in soaps, that is — hand sanitizers and hand wipes are not included in this rule), but that doesn’t mean that antibacterial soaps will be any safer.

Firstly, the FDA’s rule doesn’t yet apply to three other chemicals — benzalkonium chloride, benzethonium chloride, and chloroxylenol – which are present in many antibacterial soaps.

“As it happens, these chemicals are common replacements for triclosan in soaps, and we are concerned about at least two of them,” writes Wu. “Benzethonium chloride and benzalkonium chloride belong to a group of chemicals called ‘quaternary ammoniums’ or just ‘quats’ for short. There is some burgeoning science showing there might be health concerns associated with these chemicals.”

The answer, then, is simple: avoid these antibacterial products in favor of good, old-fashioned soap.

“Following simple handwashing practices is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of many types of infection and illness at home, at school and elsewhere,” says Theresa M. Michele, MD, of the FDA’s Division of Nonprescription Drug Products. “We can’t advise this enough. It’s simple, and it works.”

Goldstein agrees. “It’s not really the soap that makes the difference, but in how thoroughly we scrub our hands,” she says. “Regular soaps with water have been shown to be just as good as antibacterial soaps, and regular soaps won’t kill the healthy bacteria or contain the harmful chemicals.”

As for what you’re scrubbing with, choose a quality soap with clean, natural ingredients for the bathroom sink. Goldstein suggests an herbal soap with natural antimicrobial properties, such as one that contains peppermint, clove, aloe, bay, basil, echinacea, hemp, or rosemary. (It’ll smell amazing too.)

Goldstein recommends checking your preferred natural soap brand in Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database and avoiding anything that ranks over a 4 out of 10.

The Bar or Liquid Debate

Successful marketing means that liquid soap is this generation’s soap of choice — Americans spend nearly twice as much on liquid soap than on bar soap, but liquid soap is the far less environmentally conscious choice.

In a cradle-to-grave life-cycle analysis, Annette Koehler and Caroline Wildbolz of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich found that the carbon footprint of liquid soap is about 25 percent greater than that of bar soap – not only because we use more liquid soap with each wash than we do bar soap, but also because liquid soap requires a package to use, and bar soap just requires a soap dish.

So when you’re picking out your soap, opt for an all-natural bar soap; not only will it tend to be less expensive than liquid soap, but you’ll have a much better chance of making sure that it actually is soap.

According to a 2012 Huffington Post article by Bill Chameides, many liquid “soaps” you find in the store aren’t soap at all, but rather “synthetic detergent.” If the word “soap” doesn’t appear on the package, it ain’t soap. With natural bar soap, you can be pretty confident in what you’re buying.

But What About Kids?

Many people who eschew antibacterial soap change their tune as soon as they have kids in the house. Illnesses bounce around a classroom so fast they can make your head spin, and a few pumps of antibacterial hand gel seem like a given.

But as Goldstein points out, most common illnesses are actually viral, which means that antibacterial soaps don’t help, and keeping away from antibacterial soap can actually help boost your child’s immunity.

“Kids tend to be pretty resilient when being introduced to new bugs, as getting sick is their bodies’ way of making their natural immunity,” she explains.

So opt for natural bar soap for the whole family; a good scrub with a natural product is really all you need to keep yourself clean.

Related on Organic Authority
How to Make Homemade Soap! 4-Ingredient Citrus Dish Soap
Soap Nuts: The Truly All-Natural Laundry Detergent
Clean Up Your Act by Making (or Buying) Vegan Soap

Washing hands image via Shutterstock

Emily Monaco
Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American food and culture writer based in Paris. She loves uncovering the stories behind ingredients and exposing the face of our food system, so that consumers can make educated choices. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice Munchies, and Serious Eats.