Do Antibacterial Soaps Do More Harm than Good?

The widespread use of certain antimicrobial chemicals in soaps and toothpaste has come under fire in recent years, spurring regulators to take a second look at their use.

Arizona State University professor Rolf Halden published an article in Environmental Science & Technology Tuesday detailing the long and convoluted history of triclocarban and triclosan, common antimicrobials in soaps and toothpastes.

Experts are concerned about the ongoing accumulation of these two chemicals in the environment and in people's bodies. Laboratory testing has suggested that they can disrupt the endocrine system and cause hormonal interference, leading to poor sperm quality, infertility, and developmental problems. Some research has linked them to the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or “superbugs.”

Research from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has shown that triclocarban and triclosan are present in the urine of 75 percent of Americans and in 97 percent of the human breast milk tested.

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The Controversial History of Triclosan

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) first proposed to remove triclosan from certain consumer products in 1978 but did not take regulatory action. In 2010, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) filed a federal lawsuit against the FDA. The lawsuit was settled in November, and the FDA agreed to move forward on the issue.

Soap manufacturers now have one year to demonstrate that triclocarban and triclosan are safe or more effective than plain soap and water. If they cannot, the chemicals must be removed from their products by 2016.

Used in soaps and toothpaste, triclocarban and triclosan are also added to some detergents, clothing, carpets, paints, plastics, toys, school supplies, and even pacifiers. More than 2,000 antimicrobial products are available, according to Halden’s paper.

“The FDA's move is a prudent and important step toward preserving the efficacy of clinically important antibiotics, preventing unnecessary exposure of the general population to endocrine disrupting and potentially harmful chemicals, and throttling back the increasing release and accumulation of antimicrobials in the environment,” Halden wrote.

Because of their widespread use, Halden says triclocarban and triclosan are the most abundant drugs in wastewater treatment-plant sludge, and they persist for more than 50 years because they don’t degrade easily. They are toxic to organisms in lakes and rivers if they leak out of the holding areas at treatment plants.

“Sustainability considerations already are informing the design of green pharmaceuticals and adopting this approach for antimicrobials promises to yield important benefits to people and the planet,” Halden concluded in his paper.

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Experts: Plain Soap and Water Do the Trick

Dr. Michael Bell, deputy director of the CDC’s Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion, said that, of the commercial products available, plain soap and water work best for disinfecting in most situations.

“For routine day in and day out use, at my house I use a nice soap that smells like flowers. That's fine. You don't need anything special,” he said.

Bell uses alcohol-based hand sanitizer when traveling through airports to prevent the spread of germs, and he said that antibacterial soaps have their place as well.

“For some things, antimicrobial soap solutions are important. If you're about to have surgery, your doctor may say take a shower with this soap twice in the next couple of days so your infection risk is lower. There's a role for all of these things,” he said.  “We don't come out and say don't use anti-bacterial soap. We are specific about where we say it should be used. What we want people to do, though, is focus on keeping their hands clean at all times.” 

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