Many people buy antibacterial soaps and body washes in an effort to keep their families cleaner and safer. While you may think that the “antibacterial” label will help kill more germs and prevent the spread of infection, there’s evidence now that the opposite may actually be true. Research shows that not only are antibacterial soaps no more effective than regular soap and water, they may actually be doing more harm than good. It’s time to throw them out.
“Using an antibacterial soap to wash your hands seems like a good idea,” said Militza Suarez-Favetta, M.D., an infectious diseases specialist at Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center in Wilkes-Barre. “However, we know now that some of the chemicals used in those soaps may be harmful in the long run. It’s better to wash with regular soap and hot water.”
The FDA bans antibacterial ingredients
In September, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the use of triclosan, triclocarban and 17 other chemicals that are commonly found in antibacterial soaps. These are the key ingredients that kill harmful bacterial. According to the ban, companies who make these soaps have one year to remove these chemicals from their products.
“There is some evidence that these chemicals may be bad for your health,” said Dr. Suarez-Favetta. “The FDA banned them because the companies making antibacterial soaps haven’t proven that they are safe for daily use over long periods of time.”
Triclosan may interfere with the body’s thyroid hormone metabolism and may disrupt the endocrine system. There is evidence that it causes other problems, too; children with prolonged exposure to triclosan have a higher chance of developing allergies, such as peanut allergies and hay fever.
Triclosan is also bad for the environment. Water washed down the drain after you wash your hands with an antibacterial soap is treated to remove contaminants. However, some triclosan still makes its way into streams and rivers, where it can hurt aquatic life and disrupt photosynthesis in algae. One study also showed high levels of this potentially dangerous chemical in the blood of dolphins.
The risk of antibiotic resistant bacteria
The old adage of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is true with bacteria.
Antibacterial soap kills most bacteria, but not all of it. The bacteria that are not killed have mutations that allow them to tolerate antibacterial chemicals. These bacteria survive and reproduce, passing on this resistance to future generations.
“Through a phenomenon called cross resistance, the same bacteria that were able to survive antibacterial soap may also be able to survive antibiotic treatments,” said Dr. Suarez-Favetta. “In a worst case scenario, antibiotics could be useless against illnesses and infections brought on by these antibiotic resistant bacteria.”
Soap and water are still the gold standard
Soap and water are still the best tools for washing your hands. Wash your hands at these key points before and after activities:
- Before: preparing food, eating, caring for sick people or treating a wound
- After: using the toilet, changing diapers, blowing your nose or coughing, touching an animal or taking out the garbage.
Try to scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds while you’re washing, which is about the length of time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice.