Why Antibacterial Soaps Do Us No Favors

A bar of soap used to be a relatively uncomplicated affair, designed solely to purge our bodies of dirt, oils, dead skin cells and other particulates that manifested throughout the course of a typical work day. Somewhere along the line, however, manufacturers began realizing that they could capitalize on a tremendous void in the market. While plain Jane bars that boasted 99.44/100% pure ingredients were admittedly efficient at restoring our hands and other respective body parts to their former zippy-clean glory, it was time to usher in a new generation of products that would cater to our every fragrance whim and turbo-cleansing desire.

Suddenly, bath bars were turning up in all sorts of rainbow shades and scents – which we became incredibly fond of – but manufacturers went back to the drawing board and began integrating newer generation ingredients into their formulas. Before long, we went positively gaga for vitamin-enriched bars as well as those that incorporated aloe, pulverized apricot pits, flower petals, medicinal herbs, oatmeal, goat’s milk, fruit and vegetable bits, chunks of purportedly ionizing pebbles (hey, why not?) and – oooooh, wait a second – how about antibacterial agents? Since people are so freaked out about germs, let’s put their minds at ease by mixing those chemicals directly INTO our soaps! Hot damn, they’re gonna sell like hot cakes! (And so they did.)

Now, there’s a bit of good news in all of this. Washing your hands thoroughly after engaging in any potentially messy business – including the preparation of raw meat, using the bathroom, sneezing/blowing your nose/coughing, cleaning up after a family pet, changing baby diapers, touching doorknobs/light switches/television remote controls/computer mice and keyboards – is a sure-fire way of preventing disease. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and The American Medical Association both concur that germs of all types can be effectively torched as long as we lather and scrub for the exact period of time that it takes to sing the Happy Birthday song twice in a row.

The bad news, however, is that we don’t need antibacterial agents to pull it all off. In fact, we don’t even need them just a little. It’s always kind of nice to take out an insurance policy against germs – which is probably why antibacterial soaps have enjoyed such a prosperous heyday. But, for 100% germ-fighting success, all we really have to do while scrubbing with a conventional bar of soap is to give proper attention to the areas between fingers and underneath nails. Seriously – that’s it.

To the rational mind, the word ‘antibacterial’ sounds altogether practical (after all, we want to kick germs, microbes and other nasties to the curb), and for multiple decades, cleansing agents with these compounds have proven to be very valuable to hospital institutions where countless strains of bacteria typically run rampant. They were not, however, created for home use, and now with such a large percentage of the average population cleaning up with antibacterial-laden soaps, an unfortunate ‘side effect’ has resulted. Bacteria are now able to mutate into super-powered future generations that thrive through adaptation despite the presence of the chemicals that once made them pull a Wicked Witch of the West. In effect, that means that lathering up with your favorite anti-bacterial soap is no longer enough to wash that bug right out of your hair (or hands, as the case may be).

Antibacterial agents include an assortment of broad spectrum microbe-fighting chemicals such as Tetrasodium EDTA, Triclocarban, Surcide PCMX, Chloroxylenol, Trichlorocarbamide and most famously, Triclosan (the very same chemical that is found in ¾ of the entire population’s urine) which – when applied to our bodies – have proven to weaken the effect of prescribed antibiotics as well as increase the incidence of allergies and asthma. Scientists believe that by living in hyper-sanitized households, children (in particular) end up with underdeveloped immune systems that fail to sufficiently flex their antibody-making-muscles, resulting in far more frequent illnesses that would normally be preventable. Studies conducted by the FDA and the EPA also found that Triclocarban and Triclosan are responsible for compromising reproductive hormone activity while also interfering with the messaging systems of the various body cells such as those in the heart and brain.

Beyond its effect on the human body, once the active chemical ingredients in antibacterial soaps enter water treatment plants, they can degrade into carcinogenic dioxins – at least, that’s exactly what has happened with Triclosan. Now, with close to 60% of American waterways containing that antibacterial agent (which, not surprisingly, is toxic to marine life), algae, fish and crustaceans are at threat, as are soil-born worms that absorb it into their flesh. Big deal? Indeed. Worms aerate the soil that our nation’s farmers grow our food crops in – the very same soil that is fertilized with up to 223 tons of Triclocarban and Triclosan-laden sewage sludge annually. Um, guess what happens when crop roots come into contact with these antibacterial chemicals? Yup… they suck it right up, which means that somewhere down the line – if you’re consuming conventionally raised vegetables – you too are sucking it right up whether you like it or not.

Sage individuals are known for waxing poetic about the interconnectedness of our actions on the planet, but the concept can seem so obscure to us that it’s often easier to nod and grin rather than to admit that we just don’t ‘get it.’ Hopefully, this article will inspire all of us to reevaluate the type of soap that we willingly apply to our epidermis and various household surfaces, bearing in mind that once the suds go down the drain, antibacterial agents will still enjoy a jet-setting experience while contaminating as many terrestrial and aquatic life forms as possible. This seems like the perfect reason to au naturel, at least with regard to DIY eco/people-friendly soaps. Viva la green cleaners!

Image: Horia Varlan

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