Chemical companies want you to believe that antibacterial hand soaps are better than plain soap at protecting you from spreading viruses.
This notion belongs in the Healthy Advice Hall of Shame, alongside “Fat, eggs, and cholesterol are all bad for you.”
How are antibacterial soaps so not better than plain soap?
- Unlike antibacterial soap, plain soap doesn’t increase the risk of infections
- Unlike antibacterial soap, plain soap doesn’t mess up your gut’s good bacteria
- Unlike antibacterial soap, plain soap doesn’t help bad bacteria turn into potentially deadly antibiotic-resistant superbugs
If you’re using any of these so-called “soaps” to stay healthy during cold & flu season (or during a pandemic), we're here to tell you there is a better way to stay clean.
The Birth of an Illusion
For starters, let's look at how the antibacterial illusion was born.
It all started with an objective: to create an antibacterial chemical compound that thoroughly cleans one’s hands—in less than the 30 seconds required of typical soap and warm water that’s been standard practice since, well, forever.
And it seemed that the most common antibacterial agents found in those chemical non-soaps, called triclosan and triclocarban, could do the job—well, almost.
Yes, they took out bacteria, but guess how long it took?
Answer: 30 seconds or more.
“There’s evidence that there is no improvement with using soaps that have these chemicals relative to washing your hands under warm water for 30 seconds with soaps without these chemicals,” says civil engineer Patrick McNamara of Marquette University in Milwaukee.
But the chemicals multiplied anyway.
On the heels of heavy marketing, triclosan was having the time of its life. In addition to hand soaps, it was invited to be an ingredient in:
- Body washes
- Toothpastes (!!)
- Household cleaners
- Medical equipment … and more.
They're Everywhere and—in Everyone?
Today, these antibacterial compounds everywhere—including inside the people who use products that contain them. They’ve been found in people’s urine, blood, breast milk, and even inside their noses.
A University of Michigan study found triclosan in the noses of 41 percent of their subjects.
That’s very not OK. Lab rats were exposed to triclosan and the notorious Staphylococcus aureus bacteria—a top five cause of infections after injury or surgery, affecting some 500,000 patients in US hospitals annually.
Even though triclosan is supposed to kill bacteria, the triclosan rats were twice as likely to become staph-infected as those without triclosan exposure.
That alone sets off alarms. But wait, there’s more.
A preliminary Oregon State University study suggested that adding triclosan to a lab animal’s healthy, balanced microbiome throws its diversity and community structure way out of whack.
Another study found that mother rats exposed to triclocarban passed it on to their babies, disrupting both mother’s and baby’s microbiomes.
We're convinced that disruptions in our good gut bacteria (our microbiome) are the cause of most of today’s most common health problems.
And with 70 percent or more of our immune system dependent on a healthy microbiome, this is a wide open door for all sorts of health problems.
And we’re told these “soaps” are good for us?
The Spillover Threat of Antibacterial
Then there’s the matter of where these chemicals go, and what they do, after people ingest or use them.
Almost all go down the drain to wastewater treatment plants.
One study found that triclosan didn’t just prevent the microbes designed to break down sewage from doing their job. It also sharply increased the presence of a gene that protects bacteria against the triclosan that’s supposed to kill them.
Research is also underway investigating whether this gene also helps create extremely dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria—superbugs.
One study showed that triclocarban had the same effect as triclosan—disrupting the microbial communities that digest sewage and yes, creating superbug-friendly conditions.
Superbugs are yet another unforeseen consequence of chemical manufacturing. Once they leak out of treatment plants into big-city and small-town water systems, they can seriously threaten local plants, animals, and people.
You don’t want to be part of that problem. And you don’t have to be.
6 Easy Ways to Go Antibacterial-free
Here are 6 safe, effective, and affordable ways to stay antibacterial-free.
- Handwashing and bathing: Plain soap. And warm water…for at least 30 seconds.
- All-purpose cleaner and disinfectant: Mix equal parts hydrogen peroxide and distilled white vinegar. Spray on kitchen counters, bathroom fixtures, other surfaces to kill 90 percent of bacteria and spores. Add a fragrant essential, if desired.
- Glass cleaner: Mix equal parts distilled white vinegar and water in a spray bottle and make glass sparkle.
- Toilet bowl cleaner: Pour 1/2 cup distilled white vinegar into toilet. Add 1/2-cup baking soda. Scrub bowl while the mixture bubbles and foams.
- Wood cleaner and nourisher: Mix 1 cup mild, biodegradable, vegetable-based liquid soap with 1/2 cup linseed oil and a few drops of essential oil.
- All-purpose degreaser: In a large bucket, mix 3–4 cups white vinegar with 1 cup baking soda. (It will bubble and foam—it’s OK.) Great for walls, woodwork, and you—no rinsing, no residue.
If you’re using any of these so-called “soaps” to stay healthy this season, do yourself—and the environment—a huge favor and rid your home of these dangerous imposters.
Eliminating them from your surrounding will help you clean up safely and might even help you cut own on your cleaning supplies expenses—another welcome benefit of an antibacterial-free lifestyle.
Take good care.
- Syed AK, Ghosh S, Love NG, Boles BR. 2014. “Triclosan promotes Staphylococcus aureus nasal colonization.” mBio 5(2):e01015-13. doi:10.1128/mBio.01015-13.
- Carey, Daniel E., Daniel H. Zitomer, Krassimira R. Hristova, Anthony D. Kappell, and Patrick J. Mcnamara. “Triclocarban Influences Antibiotic Resistance and Alters Anaerobic Digester Microbial Community Structure.” Environmental Science & Technology Environ. Sci. Technol. 50, no. 1 (2016): 126-34.
- Gaulke, Christopher A., Carrie L. Barton, Sarah Proffitt, Robert L. Tanguay, and Thomas J. Sharpton. “Triclosan Exposure Is Associated with Rapid Restructuring of the Microbiome in Adult Zebrafish.” 2016. doi:10.1101/039669.
- Mole, B. “Mounting Data Suggest Antibacterial Soaps Do More Harm Than Good.” http://arstechnica.com/science/2016/04/mounting-data-suggest-antibacterial-soaps-do-more-harm-than-good/
Disclaimer: Please note the date of last review or update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
Last Updated: December 9, 2020
Originally Published: June 10, 2016