You may notice that in a couple places I’ve used “antibacterial” and in others, “antimicrobial.” Although there is a difference (antibacterial products tend to reduce the growth of many forms of bacteria, while antimicrobial products prevent the growth of a broader range of bacteria and fungi, including molds), the terms are often used interchangeably.
I first became aware of triclosan as a hospital employee in the late 1970s. Some of the physicians I worked with even then, and certainly in the decades since, expressed concerns about the potential for germs to develop resistance to this or other antimicrobial agents, turning them into superbugs (I’m also leery of the excessive use of antibiotics, both personally and commercially, for the same reason). I’ve come across so many news articles, books, and university studies since then which have only served to reinforce this opinion. So naturally, I was immediately ready to share the Smithsonian Magazine article “Five Reasons Why You Should Probably Stop Using Antibacterial Soap.”
At first I was just going to post a brief comment and link to the article. Then I did a quick Google search for supporting clinical information on the effects of this pesticide. That’s right, triclosan is a pesticide. I realized from previous reading that triclosan – one of the most common antimicrobial agents used in antibacterial consumer products – is prevalent in many household items, but I didn’t realize just how many.
First things first: do antimicrobial household products work better than regular soaps and cleansers? Some say yes, some say no. The FDA is currently inclined to side with the No’s:
In fact, there currently is no evidence that over-the-counter (OTC) antibacterial soap products are any more effective at preventing illness than washing with plain soap and water, says Colleen Rogers, Ph.D., a lead microbiologist at FDA.
The agency issued a proposed rule on Dec. 16, 2013 that would require manufacturers to provide more substantial data to demonstrate the safety and effectiveness of antibacterial soaps. The proposed rule covers only those consumer antibacterial soaps and body washes that are used with water. It does not apply to hand sanitizers (for instance, Purell and similar products use alcohol), hand wipes or antibacterial soaps that are used in health care settings such as hospitals.
(There’s also the question of just how clean your home should actually be. I’m old enough to remember hearing countless mothers say “a little dirt is good for you.” A lot of research over the past couple decades suggests that’s true; exposure to bacteria, particularly in children, helps build healthy immune systems. I was a working mother of four who didn’t have the time or energy to maintain a spotless house, so I take some comfort in this)
Next question: even if there’s no proof that they’re better, what’s the harm?
• A UC Davis study in collaboration with University of Colorado found that triclosan may impair muscle (including heart) function.
• As I wrote at the beginning of this post, antibacterial soaps have the potential to create antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
• Triclosan has been linked in animal studies to other health problems, including interfering with thyroid and brain function, low testosterone, and disruptions to the immune system which may increase allergy risk. It has also been found in urine and breast milk.
• It also poses potential environmental hazards, although the EPA doesn’t seem particularly alarmed at this point about significant enough concentrations in water to do any real environmental damage, although they acknowledge that it may adversely impact aquatic invertebrates and algae. Algae, of course, is our oxygen-producing friend.
And finally, how prevalent is this stuff?
You’d probably be surprised – I certainly was. Hand soaps and body washes; deodorants; shaving gels; kitchen items: cutting boards, mops, trash bags; children’s toys; clothing; keyboards; pencils; air filters; paint; yoga mats; coolers; vacuum bags… and on, and on, and on.
So, what’s the takeaway? Pretty much the same as always: know what you’re buying.