Natural Life Magazine

Ask Natural Life:
The Dangers of Antibacterial Soap
by Wendy Priesnitz

the dangers of antibacterial soap and hand sanitizers in everyday life
Photo Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Q: I’ve just had a baby and want to make sure she has the healthiest possible start in life. With all the viruses and bacteria around us, I am trying to keep our home as clean as possible. But during a recent visit, my mother-in-law said I shouldn’t be using antibacterial soap. I figure that using it is one of the no-brainer things we can do. So who is right? 

A: There is a great deal of evidence that the use of antibacterial soap in the normal household is unnecessary and causes far more harm than good, both to human health and the environment. 

Since 2000, the American Medical Association (AMA) has been advising the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to closely monitor and possibly regulate the home use of antimicrobials. At the AMA annual meeting in 2000, Myron Genel, chair of the AMA Council on Scientific Affairs and a Yale University pediatrician, said, “There’s no evidence that they do any good and there’s reason to suspect that they could contribute to a problem” by helping to create antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

In 2005, the FDA finally announced that it is considering restricting antibacterial soaps, which its panel of health experts overwhelmingly said have not been proven any more effective than regular soap in preventing infections among average consumers. Actions the FDA could take include changing product labels, restricting marketing claims or pulling the products off the market altogether. The advisory panel told the FDA that consumer products that include bacteria-fighting ingredients should be required to have scientific data proving they prevent infections.

At issue are antibacterial products that include chemicals such as triclosan, which is known for its bacteria-fighting properties. Like Bisphenol-A (BPA), triclosan is a hormone disruptor that has been shown to alter male and female sex hormones in animal studies, which could lead to problems like early onset puberty, reduced fertility and cancer. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates that seventy-five percent of the American population has triclosan in their bodies. It also accumulates in the environment. In late 2013, the FDA initiated a probe into the efficacy and safety of antibacterial soaps, specifically the inclusion of triclosan.

In mid 2016, as a result of that study, the FDA ruled that triclosan and other similar ingredients do little or nothing to make soap work any better and said the industry has failed to prove they're safe. It gave companies a year to take the ingredients, which include triclosan and triclocarban, out of their hand soaps and body washes. Soap manufacturers will have an extra year to negotiate over other, less commonly used ingredients such as benzalkonium chloride.

“Consumers may think antibacterial washes are more effective at preventing the spread of germs, but we have no scientific evidence that they are any better than plain soap and water,” said Dr. Janet Woodcock, director of the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, at the time of the announcement.

Aside from the side effects of their main ingredients, one of the problems is that antibiotics kill more than the disease-causing bacteria to which they are directed. They kill any other susceptible bacteria. Once the ecosystem is cleared of susceptible bacteria, resistant bacteria can multiply and dominate the environment due to lack of competition, resulting in drug-resistant “superbugs”. The phenomenon can be likened to weeds that have overgrown a lawn where the grass has been completely destroyed by an overdose of herbicides.

The ubiquity of the antibacterials in soaps “is a worrying thing,” lead researcher Dr. Eli N. Perencevich of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts, told the media at a meeting of the Infectious Diseases Society of America in New Orleans in 2000. He said at the level of usage of antibacterial soap in the typical home, bacteria could easily develop that would be resistant to both antibiotics and the antibacterial soaps themselves.

Microbiologist Dr. Stuart Levy of Tufts University told an International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases in Atlanta, Georgia in 2000 that strong antibacterial cleaners are needed only when someone in a household is seriously ill or has low immunity. He said that older cleansers such as soap and hot water, alcohol, chlorine bleach and hydrogen peroxide are sufficient for most purposes.

In fact, your use of antibacterial cleaners may be hurting your baby’s immune system rather than keeping her healthy. Dr. Levy, who has long been active with the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotic (APUA), spoke of an Italian study that found that exposure to bacteria is essential for development of an infant’s immune system. A baby, he said, must be exposed to germs during its first year in order to develop the antibodies needed to fight infection later in life.

There are also environmental problems with the over-use of antibacterial agents, which may, in turn, lead to health problems. According to Peter Vikesland of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, in research published on Environmental Science & Technology’s Research ASAP website, he and his colleagues found that the triclosan antimicrobial agent used in household dishwashing soaps reacts with chlorinated water to produce unacceptably high levels of chloroform, which is known to be a probable human carcinogen.

The research also suggests that the reaction of triclosan with chlorine could be producing highly chlorinated dioxins in the presence of sunlight.

In addition to being found in soap, triclosan is also found in toothpastes, acne creams, deodorants, and lotions. It is also incorporated into a wide range of consumer products like toys, cutting boards, toothbrush handles, hot tubs and athletic clothing.

Like Levy, other researchers suggest restricting the use of antibacterial cleaning products to health care settings like hospitals or nursing homes with very sick residents. However, industry representatives contend that their products are safe and that people should be able to clean themselves and their homes as effectively as hospitals. Unfortunately, triclosan and other antibacterial chemicals take time to work, needing to be left on a surface for up to two minutes. Since most people are not that patient or conscientious, they end up rinsing off the antibacterial cleansing agent before it has time to work. On the other hand, regular soap gets rid of bacteria too, by adhering it to the soap’s fatty acids, which become encapsulated in droplets of water and washed away.

Another piece of the puzzle not mentioned by the soap industry in its marketing of expensive antibacterial agents to consumers is that many of the most common diseases are viral in Nature and therefore not prevented by antibacterial products!

So take the advice of some of the world’s best microbiologists and medical doctors, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and wash your hands, your baby and your home thoroughly with ordinary soap and warm water or traditional cleaning agents. And you will be effectively, safely and inexpensively warding off infection while not destroying your family’s natural immunity.

Learn More

The Antibiotic Paradox: How the Misuse of Antibiotics Destroys Their Curative Powers by Stuart B Levy (Perseus Publishing, 2002)

The Natural Soap Book: Making Herbal and Vegetable-Based Soaps by Susan Miller Cavitch (Storey Publishing, 1995)

Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics

Consumer Update: FDA Taking a Closer Look At Antibacterial Soap - December 2013

Wendy Priesnitz is Natural Life Magazine's editor, a journalist, and author of thirteen books.


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