1. Antibacterial soaps are no more effective than conventional soap and water. 42 years of FDA research has produced no evidence that triclosan provides any health benefits as compared to old-fashioned soap.
“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. “But we don’t have any evidence that that is really the case over simple soap and water.”
2. Antibacterial soaps have the potential to create antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Heavy use of antibiotics can cause bacterial resistance, which results from a small subset of a bacteria population with a random mutation that allows it to survive exposure to the chemical.
3. The soaps could act as endocrine disruptors. In rats, frogs and other animals, triclosan appears to interfere with the body’s regulation of thyroid hormone. If this is the case in humans, too, there are worries that it could lead to problems such as infertility, artificially-advanced early puberty, obesity and cancer.
4. The soaps might lead to other health problems, too. There’s evidence that children with prolonged exposure to triclosan have a higher chance of developing allergies, including peanut allergies and hay fever. Scientists speculate that this could be a result of reduced exposure to bacteria, which could be necessary for proper immune system functioning and development.
5. Antibacterial soaps are bad for the environment. When we use a lot of triclosan in soap, a lot of triclosan gets flushed down Small quantities of the chemical can persist after treatment at sewage plants, and as a result, USGS surveys have frequently detected it in streams and other bodies of water. Once in the environment, triclosan can disrupt algae’s ability to perform photosynthesis.
What Should You Do?
If you’re planning on giving up antibacterial soap—like Johnson & Johnson, Kaiser Permanente and several other companies have recently done—you have a couple options.
One is a non-antibiotic hand sanitizer, like Purell, which don’t contain any triclosan and simply kill both bacteria and viruses with good old-fashioned alcohol. Because the effectiveness of hand-washing depends on how long you wash for, a quick squirt of sanitizer might be more effective when time is limited.
Outside of hospitals though, the time-tested advice: wash your hands with conventional soap and water is probably the way to go. That’s because while alcohol from hand sanitizer kills bacteria, it doesn’t actually remove dirt or anything else you may have touched. But a simple hand wash should do the trick. The water doesn’t need to be hot, and you’re best off scrubbing for about 30 seconds to get properly clean.