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.
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.”
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.
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.
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. I have made our own natural hand sanitizer and disinfectant spray when I feel like we really need it. For everyday life though, since studies show that regular soap and water are just as effective, I just focus on teaching our children proper hand washing and hygiene.
Here are some of our favorite natural soap recipes and products:
- Branch Basics – Hands down, my favorite natural and all-purpose cleaning concentrate. I use just one bottle to make my hand soap, cleaners, and laundry detergent.
- Make your own soap from coconut oil and olive oil – This is a really fun project to do with kids! We make it in the slow cooker.
- Make your own foaming hand soap – It’s hard to get kids to wash their hands properly. Foaming hand soap means less work for them (and it lasts longer!).
What’s your take on antibacterial soap? Do you take a different approach?