When you buy personal care products like soap or body wash, do you reach for items that are labelled “antibacterial” with the belief that they’ll keep your family safer? Do you think they’ll help reduce your risk of becoming ill, infected or spreading germs?
Just about everyone is aware of the importance of washing their hands with soap in order to avoid spreading germs, so it would only seem logical that using antibacterial, AKA germ-killing soap, would do an even better job. The reality is that that’s not only totally false but antibacterial soaps, including hand sanitizers and the like, may even be very dangerous.
This isn’t something new, in fact, studies have been revealing the dangers of antibacterial soap for years. In 2005, researchers found that the antibacterial agent known as triclosan reacts with chlorinated water to produce chloroform, which is a known carcinogen. Dating all the way back to 1978, the FDA even published a draft that stated triclosan was “not generally recognized as safe and effective.”
Yet decades later, triclosan is still included in an extensive array of consumer products. Research has found that about 75 percent of liquid antibacterial soaps and 30 percent of bars use this as an active ingredient. The drug, which was originally used strictly in hospital settings, was adopted by manufacturers of soaps and other home products during the 1990s, eventually ballooning into an industry that’s worth an estimated $1 billion. While it’s most commonly found in soaps, it’s included in everything from cosmetics and toothpaste to apparel and kitchenware – it’s even found in toys. Because of that, people’s long-term exposure to triclosan is higher than even previously thought, raising concerns about the potential risks associated with the use of this ingredient over a lifetime.
Here’s a closer look as to why you need to stop using all of those antibacterial products.
7 Reasons To Stop Using Antibacterial Soaps
1. Antibiotic resistance
You’ve probably heard about the overuse of antibiotics, which is said to be causing the rise of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs.” Antibacterial products cause the same problem. They have the potential to create antibiotic-resistant bacteria. When antibiotics are used heavily, they can cause resistance, which is said to result from a small subset of a bacteria population with a random mutation that allows it to survive exposure to triclosan. When that chemical is used often enough, it kills other bacteria, while allowing this resistant subset to proliferate. When that happens on a wide enough scale, it may essentially render that chemical useless against that particular strain of bacteria.
It’s this very issue that’s been called by the World Health Organization, a “threat to global health security.” Certain bacteria species, most notably, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, have even acquired resistance to a number of different medications, which are further complicating efforts to control and treat infections as they spread.
Allison Aiello, epidemiologist at the University of Michigan School of Public Health explained to Scientific American, “Triclosan has a specific inhibitory target in bacteria similar to some antibiotics. When bacteria are exposed to triclosan for long periods of time, genetic mutations can arise. Some of these mutations endow the bacteria with resistance to isoniazid, an antibiotic used for treating tuberculosis, whereas other microbes can supercharge their efflux pumps—protein machines in the cell membrane that can spit out several types of antibiotics, she noted.”
2. It isn’t any more effective than traditional soap
Companies that market these antibacterial products say they kill germs to break the circle of infection and don’t cause bacterial resistance. But many experts and groups such as the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology in Washington, D.C., says that’s simply a marketing ploy.
Epidemiologist Robert Sharbaugh told ABCNews, “These products imply they lower the risk of infection, which is blatantly untrue. There is a misbelief that if you use this, it will cut down on disease like colds. That’s crazy because many of these diseases are viral in nature.”
A number of studies, such as research published in the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy have shown this as well. Looking into the effectiveness of antibacterial soaps, they found there was “no significant difference” and antimicrobial soap was “no more effective than plain soap” at preventing infectious illness. As Sharbaugh noted, most diseases are caused by viruses, not bacteria, which is why using antibacterial soap is pointless not to mention potentially harmful.
“I suspect there are a lot of consumers who assume that by using an antibacterial soap product, they are protecting themselves from illness, protecting their families,” Sandra Kweder, deputy director of the FDA’s drug center, said to the Associated Press. “But we don’t have any evidence that that is really the case over simple soap and water.”
While manufacturers say they have evidence that triclosan works, the disagreement is said to stem from the use of various testing methods – tests that strictly measure the number of bacteria on one’s hands after using soap, do show that soap with triclosan kills slightly more than conventional ones, but it has not been found to lower infection rates. To date, analysis of the health benefits of triclosan have found no evidence that using it can reduce the transmission of gastrointestinal or respiratory infections. Experts believe that could be because antibacterial soaps specifically target bacteria, but not viruses, which are responsible for the majority of seasonal flus, and colds.
3. Endocrine disruptors
The are numerous potential dangers that come with the use of triclosan in addition to the problems above. It’s also an endocrine disruptor, which means that it interferes with important hormone functions – that can directly affect the immune and reproductive systems, as well as the brain. This chemical has been found to disturb testosterone, the thyroid and estrogen regulation, which can create multiple problems, like poor sperm quality, early puberty, infertility, obesity, and cancer. Several studies have shown that in frogs, rats and other animals, that it may interfere with the body’s regulation of thyroid hormone. Researchers believe it may be because it so closely resembles the hormone that it can bind to its receptor sites.
The impacts of prolonged exposure to triclosan during fetal development, infancy and childhood can be rather severe, and result in permanent damage.
While these potentially harmful effects have been shown in animal studies like the one’s mentioned, and the FDA says those aren’t always indicative of what will happen to humans, even they have recommended reviewing the risks further and have said that concerned consumers should look to regular soap instead.
4. Negative impact on the environment
Antibacterial soaps are bad for the environment too – and, because we use lots of antibacterial soap, a lot of triclosan gets flushed down the drain. The chemical has been found to create dioxin when exposed to sunlight and chloroform and continues to build up in the environment. It’s been detected after treatment at sewage plants, and surveys by the United States Geological Service have frequently discovered it in streams and other bodies of water. Once in the environment, it can disrupt algae’s ability to perform photosynthesis.
Researchers out of the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health discovered that after flushing antibacterial products down the drain, about 75 perfect of triclosan and triclocarban compounds survive treatment at sewage plants. They end up in waterways, in sludge spread on agricultural fields, and possibly on produce too, reports environmentalhealth.ca.
Dr. Rolf Halden, Ph.D, lead author of the study, said, “…we mass-produce and use a toxic chemical which the Food and Drug Administration has determined has no scientifically proven benefit…when we try to do the right thing by recycling nutrients contained in biosolids, we end up spreading a known reproductive toxicant on the soil where we grow our food. The study shows just how important it is.
5. Increasing the risk of allergies
One of the theories as to why the instance of allergies has been on the rise, is that our “overly-sanitized environment” is harming the development of our immune system. Research published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology furthered that theory by showing that triclosan commonly found in antibacterial products causes mutations, which may lead to food allergies.
Basically, the reason for the association between antibacterial soaps and allergies has to do with the hygiene hypothesis, a theory about how the immune system develops and how it reacts to assaults. Some scientists think that our society’s modern day obsession with cleanliness, which includes both an exceedingly sanitized lifestyle that keeps us isolated from the majority of germs that can make us sick and the overuse of antibacterial cleaning products, has caused our immune systems to become hypersensitive to foreign assaults of all kinds, whether harmful or beneficial. Additionally, as younger generations have been raised in such relatively sterile, clean environments, the researchers argued that their immune systems haven’t been challenged sufficiently in order to respond to bacteria and viruses, leading them to mistakenly overreact to common proteins like those found in foods and grasses or dust, which results in allergies.
6. Impaired muscle function
Research out of the University of California, Davis, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences also showed evidence that triclosan interferes with muscle contractions in human cells, as well as muscle activity in minnows and mice. In the mice, heart muscle function was decreased by as much as 25 percent after exposure to just one dose of triclosan, and their grip strength was lowered by as much as 18 percent.
In the experiment, minnows were used to mimic the effect of triclosan in marine environments. After being exposed to concentrations of triclosan equivalent to what can be found in the wild for a 7-day period, they were significantly worse swimmers than minnows that hadn’t been exposed to triclosan and were less effective in swimming tests that simulated the the act of evading a predator.
Experts say the reason that’s especially concerning is that other findings have shown the chemical can penetrate the skin and enter the bloodstream much easier than what was previously thought. And, one survey conducted in 2008, discovered triclosan in the urine of 75 percent of those who were tested.
7. Changes in gut bacteria
According to research published in the journal Science recently, triclosan may also be messing with people’s guts. Written by academics from the University of Chicago, the research focused on the lesser-known effects of triclosan exposure on gut bacteria. Much research as of late has been showing just how gut bacteria can control all aspects of our lives as our bodies are more bacterial than human, with ten times the number of bacterial cells as human cells.
Disturbing the human microbiome has been “linked to a wide array of diseases and metabolic disorders, including obesity, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and behavioral and metabolic disorders,” wrote the authors of the paper, Alyson L Yee and Jack A Gilbert.
The current generation of children have one-third less variety of gut bacteria compared to our generation and especially our parents and grandparents generations reports Wellness Mama.
What this means to you, is that the use of triclosan may have even more, very far-reaching effects on your health as the careful protection of the gut biome is vital to maintaining health and reversing the path of disease that our world is on.
The bottom line
Molecular biologist John Gustafson of New Mexico State University in Las Cruces told the Scientific American that these substances really belong in hospitals and clinics, not in the homes of healthy people. It’s time to give up those anti-bacterial soaps – good, long-term hygiene means using regular soap, not antibacterial ones, experts unanimously agree. The main way to keep from getting sick is to wash your hands three times a day and avoid touching mucous membranes.
When purchasing any household or personal care product, check the label – if it contains triclosan, put it back. Or, even better, make your own products right at home using natural ingredients – there are countless effective recipes out there that will benefit your health rather than harm it.