Maida P. Galvez, MD
Associate Professor of Environmental Medicine and Public Health
Associate Professor of Pediatrics
Director of the Region 2 Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit
Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
Why You Should Avoid Antibacterial Soap
"Wash your hands!" It's every child's marching orders, and for good reason. Hand-washing is the single most effective way to prevent getting sick and combat the spread of germs. It reduces infections like the common cold that are passed from person to person.
We are told to wash with soap and water to prevent the transmission of bacteria, so an antibacterial soap should be the best one to use, right? Not so fast.
The Myth of Antibacterial Soaps
Antibacterial soaps with added chemicals like triclosan hit the market more than three decades ago. Consumers assumed anything marketed as "antibacterial" must be better than plain soap. They also assumed that if products were available on store shelves, they must have been tested for safety.
However, even though antibacterial soaps have been in widespread use for years, manufacturers have failed to provide sufficient evidence of either their safety or effectiveness. Put simply, there is no reason to believe antibacterial soaps work any better than plain soap and water, and they may be doing more harm than good. As a result, in September 2016, the United States Food and Drug Administration issued a ban on over-the-counter antibacterial soaps containing one or more of 19 active ingredients, including the most common ones: triclosan (found in many liquid soaps) and triclocarban (bar soaps).
First Do No Harm: Ensuring Product Safety
The FDA's concerns include the potential for increased bacterial resistance to antibiotics with popular use of the soaps, as well as evidence that the added chemicals are associated with allergies and influence hormones in the body. For example, triclosan can be detected in urine, blood, and breast milk and can disrupt normal hormonal processes. (Thankfully, studies have shown that when you stop using personal care products that contain triclosan, the levels in the body rapidly decline.) The potential for negative effects on the environment has been raised as well, with triclosan having been shown to accumulate in fish and other aquatic wildlife.
Families need to be able to trust that soaps and other everyday items in our homes, schools, communities, and workplaces are safe. To prevent widespread exposures to potentially harmful chemicals, it is critical that consumer product labels include an accurate ingredients list. And products should have certification that they have been rigorously tested to assess the potential for harm before they are placed on the market. It is especially important to evaluate risks to women of childbearing age, pregnant women, infants, toddlers, and children, who are uniquely vulnerable to exposures to harmful chemicals. Finally, we need to know that replacement chemicals are actually safer, because when one chemical is banned, we've seen that the levels of exposure to the replacement chemicals can simultaneously rise.
What Can You Do?
• Avoid using soap products labeled "antibacterial."
• Wash your hands with plain soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
• If using hand sanitizer (which is not affected by the FDA ban), choose one that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.
• Although now prohibited in soaps, triclosan and other antibacterial chemicals are still found in many other consumer products, including kitchenware, clothing, and office supplies. So be aware, and avoid products touted as "antimicrobial" or "antibacterial."