Why I DON’T Use Antibacterial Soap

The problem with antibacterial soap

In our home, we don’t use antibacterial soap in any form. I realize that statement may sound like heresy as we launch into flu season, but our decision is supported by science.

Is Antibacterial Soap More Effective?

Last year, the FDA announced that there was no added benefit to antibacterial soaps over plain soap and water for cleanliness or illness prevention. From that report:

Moreover, antibacterial soap products contain chemical ingredients, such as triclosan and triclocarban, which may carry unnecessary risks given that their benefits are unproven.

“New data suggest that the risks associated with long-term, daily use of antibacterial soaps may outweigh the benefits,” Rogers says. There are indications that certain ingredients in these soaps may contribute to bacterial resistance to antibiotics, and may have unanticipated hormonal effects that are of concern to FDA.

Though antibacterial soaps don’t have any documented benefit above regular soap and water, there are some serious and important risks to consider:

Changes in the Microbiome

Lately, I’ve been fascinated by the emerging research on our gut bacteria and microbiome and how it can literally control all aspects of our lives. Our bodies are more bacterial than human, with 10x the number of bacterial cells as human cells.

I attended a screening of the movie “Microbirth,” which explored the microbiome and how it is passed on during the birthing process and during the early months. I highly recommend the movie as it had encouraging information for moms who need to have c-sections.

The Microbirth movie and many recent studies explore how antibacterial substances affect the microbiome. The current generation of children have 1/3 less variety of gut bacteria compared to our generation and especially our parents and grandparents generations.

This affect on gut bacteria might also be the reason we are seeing research about children who have a higher exposure to triclosan or similar chemicals have a higher risk of peanut allergies, hay fever or other life threatening allergies. From this post:

In fact, in our rush to embrace antibacterial cleaning products that allegedly keep us from getting sick, we may actually be minimizing the natural contact our immune system would have with them—contact that’s necessary for our bodies to develop natural immunities and antibodies that really keep us healthy (this is called the hygiene hypothesis.) Additionally, there’s growing concern that antibacterial products may actually have the opposite effect. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University published a study in the 2012 Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology where they found that children with high levels of triclosan, a common component in everything from cleaning products and toothpaste to pizza cutters and countertops—anywhere “antibacterial” properties are marketed), were at significantly higher risk for developing seasonal allergies, food, drug, and insect allergies, hay fever, and other immune-related sensitivities.

I suspect that as we find out more about how the microbiome affects gene expression, we will realize that careful protection of the gut biome is vital to maintaining health and reversing the path of disease that our world is on.

At the least, as research emerges, it seems important to study the many ways antibacterial substances affect our gut biome and avoid these substances until we have proof of their safety.

Resistant Bacteria

When you look at the role of bacteria on a larger scale, antibacterial soaps can be even more dangerous as researchers now suspect that they may be involved in creating antibiotic-resistant super bacteria that have the potential to harm the population on a larger scale. From a recent news report:

“Indeed, recent research suggests these products may encourage the growth of “superbugs” resistant to antimicrobial agents, a problem when these bacteria run rampant, turning into a dangerous infection that cannot be treated with available medication.

Similar growth of drug-resistant strains has already occurred with antibiotics. The overuse and misuse of antibiotics has led to several drug-resistant microbes, such as streptococcus pneumonia and strains of E. coli.

Dr. Stuart Levy, president of the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics and a professor of molecular biology at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, believes antibacterial soaps are dangerous.

“Triclosan creates an environment where the resistant, mutated bacteria are more likely to survive,” says Levy, who published a study on the germicide two years ago in the journal Nature.

Charles Rock, a researcher at St. Jude Children’s Research Hosptial in Memphis, Tenn., also published work in Nature last month supporting the resistance theory.

“The use of triclosan in these products will lead to the emergence of resistance,” he predicts. “There is no strong rationale for [its] use.”

Hormone Disruption

Have thyroid problems or hormone imbalance? I do, and it turns out that antibacterial chemicals could be one contributing factor. Several studies (like this one and this one) showed that triclosan and similar chemicals disrupted the body’s ability to uptake thyroid hormone and interfered with other hormone processes in the body.

This hormone imbalance can lead to more advanced problems like infertility, obesity and several cancers.

Infection Risk

Yet another study found that use of triclosan led to build up of staph aureus bacteria in the nose and other parts of the body. This led to an increased risk of infection, amputation and even death (especially after a surgery). This explains:

Triclosan, a chemical found in the majority of anti-bacterial hand and dish soaps, was picked up in the nasal passages of 41 percent of the adults sampled by researchers at the University of Michigan. Those with triclosan in their noses were more likely to also have colonies of the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus (commonly referred to as “staph”).

Most importantly though, was that researchers found a potential link between the two: Triclosan appears to help the staph bacteria grab hold and bind to proteins in the nose.

“I think we have been seeing a lot of this over the past few years, that perhaps these antimicrobial soaps are doing more harm than good,” said Dr. Melissa Osborn, an infectious disease specialist with MetroHealth Medical Center. “We know that one of the reasons that staph aureus colonizes some people’s noses is that it adheres to some of the proteins in the nose. Triclosan actually promoted that adhesion.”

Having staph aureus in your nose — which is the case for about 30 percent of people — is not necessarily a problem in and of itself, but is a risk factor for getting other infections such as surgical site infections, boils, catheter site infections in people on dialysis and diabetic foot ulcers.

Environmental Concerns

Last, but certainly not least, use and overuse of these chemicals has taken a toll on the environment.

Widespread use of antibacterial chemicals, especially in hand soaps, has led to these chemicals getting washed down drains and into the water system. Studies show that these chemicals can remain, even after water treatment and these chemicals (and many others, including plastic based chemicals) are being found in streams and waterways around the world.

This is especially concerning because they appear to affect algae and marine life in dramatic ways:

The chemical is also fat-soluble—meaning that it builds up in fatty tissues—so scientists are concerned that it can biomagnify, appearing at greater levels in the tissues of animals higher up the food chain, as the triclosan of all the plants and animals below them is concentrated. Evidence of this possibility was turned up in 2009, when surveys of bottlenose dolphins off the coast of South Carolina and Florida found concerning levels of the chemical in their blood.

What to Do?

On one hand, I think we are overly concerned with germs and sanitation. Our immune systems need to interact with a wide variety of bacteria in order to get stronger and we’ve been making this process increasingly difficult.

I’ve found that the best and least expensive way to avoid antibacterial chemicals is to make many of our own products. Since studies show that regular soap and water are just as effective, I just focus on teaching our children proper hand washing and hygiene.

We use homemade hand soap at home and natural soap and water hand washing spray when we are on the go. I also make our own soap from coconut oil and olive oil to avoid the chemicals in many conventional soaps. I’ve also used store bought natural hand soap in the past.

What do you think? Is this something to worry about? What kind of soap do you use?

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Reader Comments

  1. Hi
    What about Soap nut liquids
    I use them and they kill bacteria and viruses and such. Not just on hands.
    Would that be very simular ?

  2. hi! Love all your posts by the way!!!

    So my husband is in law enforcement and most of the time has to handle some pretty dirty people and things, so he literally uses Lysol wipes after the incidents until he can go wash his hands in a public restroom which usually has that pink soap. .. I’ve tried so hard to convince him the Lysol wipes can’t be healthy, but he insists it the only things that makes him feel less icky after. .. What can I make or buy that is heavy duty, more so than the normal hand washing soap, that can make him feel clean but natural and healthy if course???

    Also! Since I’m here! I use Planet dish soap, what do you think of that brand?! Thanks!!!

  3. What about hand sanitizer?

    • I’m not a huge fan, but I do keep this around if it is absolutely necessary to use.

  4. I never use antibacterial soap. I am 56 years old and haven’t had a cold or flu in years.

  5. Thank you for talking about this!!! I stopped using this junk for the SAME reasons, plus it stripped my hands bare, it was terrible.

  6. I am an RN and really don’t like antibacterial soaps. At home I use liquid Castille soap for hand washing and dishes. Lye soap bar for the shower.

    • I have been using a bar of castile soap for hair washing and showering. Nice lather and coconut oil moisturizes. Do not use on private parts.

  7. I use Radiantly You’s All Natural Invigorating Lemon Hand Soap!

  8. I believe the FDA just recently switched the rules about soaps, and quite soon, they will no longer be able to have antibacterial agents in their soap. Bath and Body Works just revamped their whole line of the summer to be compliant. Normally, less government involvement the better, but I think this was a good choice.

  9. Hi,

    I completely agree with all of the information you provided, it seems that younger generations seem to be having more and more allergies.
    I had a question though, does dishwashing soap fall into this category as well? If so, do you have a natural homemade recipe or store-bought option you use instead?

      • That’s a great topic! I make my own soap for about a year now and I’m using it for almost everything around the house: in the bathroom, kitchen, laundry. When washing the dishes just rub it a little bit of your sponge and it washes perfectly.

  10. Thank you for this post and all you do! I am one of those mamas who has to have a c-section due to a prior surgery on my cervix. I am very interested to learn more about what I can do to support my baby’s micro biome despite the c-section birth. Could you do a post on that someday??

  11. Hi Katie,
    Do you have a Natural Light that you would recommend? I have been researching and I am confused. Thanks for all you do. I love this blog!

  12. Interesting article and confirms what I believe about being germophobic. However, I am curious about hand sanitizer as the article didn’t mention that. My daughter loves to carry hand sanitizer with her when she’s out and about. Strangely enough she’s the one person in our household who seems to catch everything that comes along. Any thoughts on hand sanitizer?

  13. yep. I use liquid castile in a foaming pump! I even handwash my dishes with it sometimes.

    Regarding the gut bacteria of kids born via C-section…Could you do a post on what you did to help your C-section kiddo after he was born?

    My baby girl was born via C-section almost 4 months ago. She was in NICU for a week where she was pumped full of antibiotics for a couple days. She had formula her first 3 days (along with my colostrum) but since day 4 she’s been exclusively breastfed. I take bio-kult probiotics and drink kombucha. I give her infant probiotics. Just wondering if there is anything else I should be doing to ensure she has a healthy gut! She’s been a dream of a baby. Sleeps well and is soooooo happy!

  14. I agree with this post. Antibacterial products just like overuse of antibiotics are not beneficial. I hope this comment doesn’t get deleted for self promotion but because of these issues my husband and I started our own handmade soap company ‘Local Hands Soap Company’ and all of the oils we use are organic with no Fake dyes or fragrances.

  15. Never used the antibacterial soaps and oh my goodness I want the see the hands of people that always use sanitizers in say, 20 or 30 years. That much drying alcohol, multiple times a day for years, cannot be a good thing for our hands. Maybe I am just vain.

    We have a oatmeal homemade soap in both the kitchen and baths, but often, I use just warm water and rub my hands together fairly strongly. (two adverbs?) The oatmeal soaps are great post gardening and I have a few hard lotions that I use as often as I remember.

    I have allergies, asthma and a few other things that are known to lower immunity, but I eat well, avoid over-medicating, and couldn’t tell you the last time I was sick. Speaking of, it’s after eleven and sleep is vital as well, goodnight!

  16. So in a public restroom you pull out your own soap? I hAve a one and a 3 year old who suck their thumbs. We don’t use antibacterial soap at home but when I’m out I do use the soap in public restrooms. I have a good hand santitizer spray from wf. But I felt washing with soap and water was better in a restroom

  17. I get frequent UTIs from ecoli and don’t know how to clean properly after my husband butchers meat or the little ones have accidents.

    How do you clean up after yuckie accidents/raw meat?

    Thank you!

  18. You don’t need antibacterial soaps for cleaning up bloody or yuckki messes. That is a marketing ploy by those soapmakers. You just need good handwashing technique. A good soap will loosen all grime and germs off your skin so it is washed away, but you do have to wash thoroughly. Scrub each finger, between fingers, the backs of the hands, and under the nails. Under the nails is where most people probably fail, if there is visible grime under the edge of your nails use a nail file or toothpick to work out that stuff. A thorough hand scrub will take at least 30 seconds if your hands are soiled.

  19. I believe this too. I’m a nurse working in a long term care facility and I see first hand what happens when you “sterilize” a living environment. Sterilize is a fancy word for eradicating ALL living bacteria…GOOD and BAD. It’s unfortunate because true health is all about balance and when we “eradicate” we disrupt the fragile ecosystem of our bodies. You need to come in contact with bad bacterial in order to have equilibrium and in order to get stronger. Health Care systems have it wrong when they go on a half a century long smear campaign to “eradicate” bacteria, viruses, and fungus. Nature knows best in my books. I don’t like it when I hear of a person succumb to illness…but sometimes it’s meant to be…especially because our bodies are constantly trying to improve our immunities but this gets halted by our fear drenched desire to eradicate and sterilize. I don’t know…just my thoughts and experience.

  20. Since we travel a lot, I started making a 91% jojoba oil and 9% tea tree oil hand sanitizer. Wonderful for skin and gentle enough for a baby’s bottom, plus it works for hours! No alcohol penetrating the skin and adding more solvents to our chemical load! Alcohol based ones stop working as soon as the alcohol dries!

  21. Hey Katie

    Great Website thank you! I Need your advice. What about “Method” products? Are they safe or just as bad?

    I recently got rid of all my toxic cleaning items (Lysol windex softsoap ect) and switched to Method. But i am wondering if they are even better?

    Thanks !

  22. How do you just do regular hand soap? Not the foaming kind?

  23. My daughter has so many allergies and has since she was tiny (milk, egg, peanut) plus penicillin, dogs, and she’s got eczema. It’s awesome.

    Our pedi recently told us to not use antibacterial hand soap since it was just killing her skin. He suggested we switch to hand sanitizer, which has oddly been a great improvement in the dryness.

    Is there hope that improving her gut would help any of these existing issues? She’s taking a probiotic, and I try to improve what she’s exposed to as much as I can (coconut oil wasn’t moisturizing enough, and allergies prevent a lot of products), but it’s so overwhelming.

  24. Our family uses Himalayan salt bars for washing our hands after we’ve been out in public places and have been pretty satisfied with how they work!

  25. I really wish I could make my own and not use hand santizer. But my daughter has a picc line that is accessed by me multiple times a day and I so don’t ever want to run the risk of her developing a line infection. She has had the line for a year and I want it to last another year with no problems. So I follow what the nurses taught me. Proper hand washing and then hand sanitizer with cleaning the clave thoroughly with alcohol pads. Essential oils are out of the running too, she went into anaphylaxis when I used them.

  26. Drinking alcohol is much less toxic to the skin and does the same job as the isopropyl alcohol in the hand sanitizer. Rubbing alcohol(isopropyl) is way more toxic. So we make hand sanitizer with ethyl alcohol aka vodka. You can guess why it isn’t used commercially…it is way more expensive!

    Hope this is helpful!

  27. We don’t use alcohol based hand sanitizer. We use a brand from walgreens. My dd has mastocytosis and is severely reactive to a lot of stuff like the smell of alcohol in hand santizer etc.