It's been ingrained in us since childhood. Don't want to get sick? Wash your hands with antibacterial soap. But the same compound we entrust to fend off the sniffles could actually be harming us—and creating an army of superbugs in the process. It's time to ban antibacterial soap.
If that sounds far-fetched or alarmist, it shouldn't. In fact, it's already happening. Just this past Tuesday, Minnesota became the first US state to ban antibacterial soaps loaded with something called triclosan, a nasty little chemical that comes with a whole host of problems. And you can find it in about 75 per cent of all liquid soaps on the market in the USA.
Other states are almost certain to follow in Minnesota's footsteps, but even that ruling doesn't officially go into effect until 2017. So there's a good chance that Americans will be seeing the stuff on shop shelves for years to come. If you do, steer clear.
Considering how prevalent the chemical is it may surprise you that the FDA has never observed evidence that triclosan-based "antibacterial" soap has any benefit over non-drug-laced varieties. Even though the FDA published guidelines for chemicals in liquid soaps back in 1978, the agency never actually got around to finalising them—meaning soap companies have never had any federally mandated rules to follow regarding chemical additives.
What the original 1978 draft did find, though, was that triclosan was totally ineffective. The FDA may not have proven definitively yet that antibacterial soap is safe, but they have proven, after 42 years of research and independent studies, it has zero health benefits over normal soap and water.
That's right: the US Food and Drug Administration states outright that triclosan soaps are no more beneficial to a user's health than the regular, non-antibacterial soaps their grandparents lathered up with. Straight from the agency itself:
FDA has not received evidence that the triclosan provides an extra benefit to health. At this time, the agency does not have evidence that triclosan in antibacterial soaps and body washes provides any benefit over washing with regular soap and water.
And despite your elementary school flu season training, washing your hands with antibacterial soap won't help you stave off that fever. As the name might imply, antibacterial soap targets bacteria—which are a different animal from the viruses that cause the common cold and flu.
Frequent hand washing is a very good idea when contagious diseases are floating around, but it's the washing, not the triclosan, that lessens your chance of getting ill. Using an antibacterial drug to fight a virus is like setting mouse traps to get rid of ants.
As it turns out, triclosan is good at something; it helps fight gingivitis. But unless you're brushing your teeth with Dawn (please don't), that doesn't mean it belongs in soap. The reality is that antibacterial soap isn't really doing you any good; in fact, it's more likely that it's causing harm.
In multiple animal studies, triclosan has been shown to disrupt the endocrine system, the complex interplay of hormones that regulate most aspects of an animal's growth and reproduction. Exposure to triclosan has been shown to reduce sperm count in male fish, speed up the onset of puberty in female mice, and decrease the presence of thyroid hormones in male rats. Because of these findings in animal studies, in the US the FDA and EPA are collaborating on research to study the drug's effect on the human endocrine system.
There's already some evidence of human side effects, though: a small study in Norway showed that children with higher concentrations of triclosan in their urine (a measure of triclosan exposure) were more likely to develop seasonal allergies.
Just this past December, the FDA issued a proposed ruling that would require antibacterial soap manufacturers to prove—with actual data—that their products "are safe for long-term daily use and more effective than plain soap and water in preventing illness and the spread of certain infections." So while the FDA isn't ringing alarm bells quite yet, it clearly thinks there's more to triclosan and compounds like it than what we currently know.
We're not just hurting ourselves with our antibacterial soap addiction, though; it could also be doing harm to the world around us.
Not only is triclosan rinsed down our drains in enormous quantity, it's also used in some types of pesticides, meaning the compound finds its way into our waterways via sewage treatment plants and trickle-down filtration. The EPA says that triclosan may attach to suspended solids and sediments in waterways, meaning that critters higher on the food chain could carry higher concentrations of the compound, which is a problem when it reaches the creatures we catch and eat.
But it's not just the animals. Some studies have shown that plants grown in environments contaminated with triclosan actually soak up the compound and metabolise it, creating a bevy of new triclosan-embedded compounds that scientists are only just beginning to monitor in the plants that we eat.
In fact, our antibacterial soap is probably doing a much better job killing ocean life than anything living on our skin. According to a recent study, triclosan is 100 to 1,000 times more effective "in inhabiting and killing algae, crustaceans, and fish" than they are at killing microbes. Which is good news if you hate our ocean friends and bad news for everyone else.
As if all that wasn't enough bad news, it gets worse. Slathering everything we own in a layer of triclosan could very likely be the genesis of an antibacterial-resistant superbug.
Of course, that's an inherent risk when any antibacterial compound gets widespread use. Bacteria will almost always develop ways to resist a drug, regardless of how it's deployed. Life finds a way! The problem is, when a drug is everywhere, as triclosan seems to be, developing resistances happens at a wildly quicker rate.
And it doesn't end there. When bacteria develop resistance to one drug, that resistance often extends to other, similar drugs. We're already seeing some bacteria with resistance to triclosan, and researchers fear that triclosan-resistant strains of e. coli and salmonella could also become resistant to the heavy-duty antibacterial drugs used to fight serious bacterial infections in a hospital setting.
So what's the answer? Just use regular soap. The cold, hard truth is that antibacterial soaps don't carry any real benefit. And the companies that make them have known this all along. Take a close look at any antibacterial soap label the next time you're at the shops. It'll probably say something like "kills 99.9 per cent of the most common bacteria."
Not "all" bacteria. Not "the really nasty, mess you up bacteria." Just "the most common bacteria." The normal flora that's always present on your skin and that (barring a few rare, serious medical conditions) isn't going to cause you any problem. In fact, a good, vigorous scrubbing with regular ol' soap and water will pretty much obliterate any germs you're looking to expunge.
So the next time you see your kid coming home covered in dirt, you'll still need to wash them (for god's sake wash them), but leave the antibacterial soap where it belongs—wasting away on some drug store shelf, waiting for the FDA to drop the boom.