Is Antibacterial Soap Bad For Your Health?

Is Antibacterial Soap Bad For Your Health?

Is antibacterial soap detrimental to your health? Today we look at some of the evidence in relation to Triclosan, a common ingredient in antibacterial soap.

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A Short History of Triclosan Usage

Triclosan is an antibacterial agent that came into widespread usage after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the antibacterial hexachlorophene from household products in 1972. Originally, triclosan was used throughout the 1970s in hospitals to clean surgical equipment, but starting in the 1990s, it was being used in hundreds of common household products. Some of these products included soaps, toothpastes, deodorants, mouthwashes, socks, plastic kitchenware, bedding, washcloths, towels, kitty litter, ballpoint pens, lunchboxes, and even toys.

Currently, approximately 75% of liquid antibacterial soaps contain triclosan, and ~29% of bar soaps contain trilocarbon (a total of ~45% of all soaps). In 1998, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approximated that over a million pounds of triclosan are produced every year in the United States. Additionally, triclosan is found in about 2000 specific products, and antibacterials are a $1 billion dollar a year industry.

Triclosan and the FDA

Surprisingly, many antibacterial chemicals were developed before there were regulations exacting scientific review, and as a result U.S. health regulators have not officially endorsed many of the chemical agents found in commonplace household products.

Triclosan is no exception, and it has a long, problematic relationship with the FDA. In 1978, a draft containing ground rules for the use of chemicals in soaps was written by the FDA. Due to a lack of scientific research, the FDA declared that triclosan was “not generally recognized as safe and effective”. Since then, the draft has been amended multiple times, yet companies continue to use triclosan because the draft has never been fully completed.

Provoked by growing apprehension over triclosan and a lawsuit from the Natural Resources Defense Council, the FDA recently challenged companies that use triclosan to prove that it is safer and more effective than simply using soap and water. Without scientific data to back up their claims, the companies face the consequence of having their products relabeled in order to stay on the market.

Watch a recent CNN video on the story:

View the FDA’s current website on triclosan here.

Antibacterials with Triclosan Vs. Regular Soap

“Millions of Americans use antibacterial hand soap and body wash products. Although consumers generally view these products as effective tools to help prevent the spread of germs, there is currently no evidence that they are any more effective at preventing illness than washing with plain soap and water. Further, some data suggest that long-term exposure to certain active ingredients used in antibacterial products — for example, triclosan (liquid soaps) and triclocarban (bar soaps) — could pose health risks, such as bacterial resistance or hormonal effects.” – Recent FDA statement on triclosan

Although antibacterials are effective in certain health care settings, studies have shown that they are no more effective for everyday cleanliness and illness prevention than regular soap and water.

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According to a WebMD page on antibacterials, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan, Dr. Allison Aiello lead research that analyzed data from multiple studies contrasting subjects who washed their hands with antibacterial soap vs. regular soap. In all of the studies except one, there was no difference between washing with antibacterial soap and regular soap. In the one study that differed from the others, subjects who used antibacterial soap had reduced hand bacteria, but only if they washed for 30 seconds,18 times a day, for 5 days straight.

Speaking against antibacterial advertising and making a distinction between bacteria and viruses, epidemiologist and guideline committee chair of the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics, Robert Sharbaugh made the following statement: “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.”

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends simply washing your hands with regular soap and water for a period of 20 seconds. If soap and water is unavailable, they recommend a hand sanitizer made with alcohol or ethanol to kill germs.

Other Studies on Triclosan

Most of the information on triclosan comes from animal studies. Although these are not exactly relevant to humans, they may be indicators of potential problems.

Following is a list of study conclusions:

  • In 1997, Colgate found scientific data that triclosan is effective as an anti-gingivitis ingredient in toothpaste. It is one of the only known effective uses for triclosan, yet may be irrelevant if triclosan proves to be harmful to humans.
  • Some evidence suggests a correlation between allergies and triclosan exposure
  • Several triclosan studies on rats and sheep have shown that it disrupts hormones and may cause infertility. It decreased testosterone and sperm production in male rats, while causing the onset of early puberty and estrogen/thyroid alterations in female rats and sheep. Two of these studies can be viewed here and here.
  • In May 2013, CBS News reported on a scientific study that found triclosan restricted muscle contractions in fish and mice. The actual study can be found here.
  • A September 2015 article in The Guardian pointed to a recent study which found regular soap to be just as effective at killing germs as antibacterial soap. Only when germs were soaked in triclosan for nine hours did an advantage manifest. “At times less than six hours there was little difference between the two,” they wrote.

Another Triclosan Concern: Antibiotic Resistance and “Superbugs”

Just as the overuse of antibiotics has resulted in the development of drug-resistant microorganisms, some scientists have expressed concern that extensive triclosan usage may lead to antibiotic resistance and the further advancement of “superbugs”. Some scientific studies have already shown that antibiotic-resistant breeds of E. coli and other bacterium can multiply in cultures containing high levels of triclosan. A December 2013 USA Today article quoted deputy director of the office of new drugs at FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, Sandra Kweder as saying, “There are laboratory data showing that bacteria exposed to these products do change their resistance patterns.” However, scientific studies in this area are ongoing and currently cannot provide sufficient evidence of danger.

Bottom Line

Roughly 75% of liquid antibacterial soaps contain the chemical agent triclosan. Many science studies have shown that antibacterial soaps containing triclosan are no more effective than regular soap and water. Furthermore, many science studies testing triclosan on animals have shown that it can cause various negative health problems. Some scientists are also concerned about antibiotic resistance and the advancement of “superbugs” due to triclosan’s prevalence. Nevertheless, animal studies may not be applicable to human beings and scientific study is still ongoing regarding many aspects of triclosan. The FDA still has not come to a definite conclusion in relation to the safety and effectiveness of triclosan.

Revised November 10, 2015
Originally published July 2014

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