While many agree hand washing is crucial to avoid getting sick, the growing concern over the safety of antibacterial soaps adds even more suds to an already slippery situation. Triclosan, the main ingredient in most antibacterial soaps, has been linked to drug resistance, disrupted hormone levels, and increased allergies   . Plus, it’s showing up where it shouldn’t in our bodies and the environment   . Are these risks worth the benefits?
Suds Up! — Why It Matters
Regulated by the FDA, triclosan is found in toothpaste, body washes, furniture, toys, and even clothing and conveyor belts. While the FDA has been reviewing the available research on triclosan’s safety in consumer products, ironically, they have already recognized that antibacterial soaps do not provide any benefits over washing with plain soap and water. When antibacterial soap was first introduced onto the commercial market in the 80s, triclosan had only been used by doctors to soap up before surgical procedures. By 2001, 76 percent of liquid hand soaps contained triclosan, the primary antimicrobial ingredient most often used to kill bacteria on the skin and other surfaces.
Since 2004, levels of triclosan in humans have increased by an average of 50 percent. It is showing up in urine and cell plasma , and a whopping 97 percent of U.S. women have detectable traces of triclosan in breast milk. This chemical buildup may be interfering with normal hormone function, increasing testosterone levels, and putting people at risk for cancer, decreased fertility, birth defects, even neurological and behavioral changes  .
Too Clean? — The Answer/Debate
According to two studies (ahem, both published by the Dial Corporation), the use of antibacterial soap may significantly reduce transmission of bacteria and may even reduce the rate of infection by 50 to 80 percent when compared to plain soap alone  . But other studies (by slightly less “invested” sources) found that commercial antibacterial soaps were no more effective at killing bacteria on the hands or preventing infectious illnesses than good old soap and water   . In environments where antibacterial agents are used frequently, triclosan may be morphing regular bacteria into superbugs— bacteria resistant to certain disinfectants and antibiotics— which can be detrimental to health  .
Since most antibacterial consumer products end up down the drain (literally), some studies have found triclosan and triclocarban (another antibacterial agent added to soaps) are now present in nearly 60 percent of all rivers and streams, with levels also steadily increasing in lake sediment  . And when triclosan gets together with it's chemical friends, this antibacterial agent may cause even more trouble. Combine it with the chlorine in tap water, and it has been known to produce chloroform, a human carcinogen that can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled and may damage the heart, kidneys, liver, and even affect the nervous system and reproductive health . When exposed to sunlight, triclosan may produce dioxins, another family of toxic chemicals that can build up in body tissue, possibly increasing cancer risk .
Findings are beginning to indicate that— especially in children with developing immune systems— there really is such a thing as being too clean . Living in overly hygienic environments limits exposure to common bacteria necessary for developing strong immune systems— the immune system is formed in response to everyday foreign substances such as dirt, pollen, and mold  .
Recently, the FDA announced that they will be investigating soaps and other products advertised as antibacterial or antimicrobial. From now on, companies that place these words on labels must prove that the antibacterial products are safe and more effective than regular old soap. If a product fails the test, companies will have to remove antibacterial ingredients and relabel the soaps.
Just because antibacterial soaps are safe for some people doesn't necessarily mean they're the safest choice. Learning to properly wash your hands (and often!) with regular old soap and water is just as beneficial, and eliminates the chemical risks that antibacterial soap carries.