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"Antibacterial" Soaps: Buyer Beware!

06/07/2010 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

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!

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.

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