Getting Clean the Healthy & Safe Way: The Myth (and Risk) of Antibacterial Products


We think we are doing the right thing – protecting our children, ourselves, and others from germs – when we wash with antibacterial soap or use antibacterial products. However, research is showing that the benefits might not be what they seem, and that the risks to human health and the environment outweigh the benefits.

The main ingredient most commonly used to make a product “antibacterial” is triclosan. The problem with this chemical is that it breaks down into two harmful chemicals. When it is exposed to sunlight (when it washes down millions of drains), it breaks down into dioxin, a known carcinogen (cancer-causing), and when it reacts with chlorine in tap water, it breaks down into chloroform, also currently thought to probably be a carcinogen. It is also a suspected endocrine disruptor, meaning it could interfere with growth and reproduction. Yuck! Who needs it? So…the next question is, does it really have germ-killing benefits, that would cause us to take the risk of exposing ourselves to these chemicals?

Here’s the answer – no. What? You mean all these products are telling me that they kill germs, but they really don’t? Well, sort of. See, triclosan does kill germs. But so does regular good old-fashioned soap! In fact, regular soap kills just as many germs, but without the possibility of harm from chemicals. So using triclosan is just a waste – a dangerous one.

Triclosan is used in handsoap, toothpaste, and many other products, which end up in wastewater treatment plants, where it is not removed. Then it breaks down into the even more dangerous chemicals. Triclosan is now the most commonly found chemical in U.S. waterways.

Another public health hazard is the fact that bacteria keep growing more resistant. So the more often that people use antibacterial chemicals needlessly, the more bacterial resistance is created, making the antibacterials less effective. Then they don’t work as well when they are really needed, for example in hospitals and surgeries. This is such the case that the Mayo Clinic, renowned for both treatment and research, says on their website that they recommend that people stop using antibacterial soaps and products.

Read labels! Triclosan is found not only in handsoaps and other soaps, but in certain mascaras, toothpastes, and even non-cleaning products such as cutting boards, socks, towels, paint, baby carriers, and toys…a wide variety of products that say they help stop the spread of germs.

Finally, as my last piece of evidence to try to convince you to stop putting this chemical into our kids and into the environment, let me tell you about my daughter’s 6th-grade science fair experiment. She tested hand soaps, comparing plain, all-natural soaps, to antibacterial soaps, to see how much stuff grew in the petri dishes after washing with each different kind of soap. The same amount of bacteria grew in the petri dishes of all the soaps we tested. In fact, it appeared that a bit more bacteria grew in the petri dishes of the antibacterial soap. The main factor that seemed to make the difference was the length of time and thoroughness of washing. And that’s what Mayo clinic, the public health information, and Mom will tell you, too. Wash your hands long enough to get them clean! Do a good job of scrubbing, with regular, old-fashioned, safe, natural, healthy soap, and you will prevent the spread of germs just as well if not better than with using the chemical stuff. And you will contribute to a safer, healthier world for all.

*Image courtesy Flickr creative commons.

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