Why I DON’T Use Antibacterial Soap

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The problem with antibacterial soap
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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. 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?

Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. WellnessMama.com is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.


42 responses to “Why I DON’T Use Antibacterial Soap”

  1. Meaghan Avatar

    I’m curious if you have any advice for healthcare workers. I’m a physical therapist, so I wash my hands with the hospital’s medical grade antibacterial/antiviral soap 100’s of times every day at work. This practice is required before and after contact with every single patient along with a strong antimicrobial wipe to disinfect equipment after use. I’m concerned about the long term effects of using these intense chemicals, but I don’t really have any other alternatives aside from quitting my job (which is not an option at this time). Are there things I can do to help restore my skin’s microbiome after destroying it at work?

  2. lorrenaine Avatar

    No, we don’t need anti-bacterial soap. Not only do they kill the helpful bacteria, but very often the anti-bacterial ingredients are not very people friendly either. Normal, everyday soap is just fine.

    For any kind of infections there are lots meds and solutions available online at amazon, ebay, walmart, mygenericpharmacy etc.

  3. Khalid Avatar

    Natural soap contains fatty acids that allow oil and water to come together more easily, which in turn allows the water we’re using to carry away the germ-infested oil and grease on our hands.

    In the 1990s, antibacterial soaps came on the market for home use. It seems like using them would be a no-brainer, but experts can’t agree on this.

    For such infections there are lots of meds and solutions available online at amazon, ebay, walmart, mygenericpharmacy etc.

  4. Vicki Avatar

    What about hand sanitizers? Is there the same concerns as you mentioned here with antibacterial soaps? Thanks!

  5. Cosette Avatar

    Some plants we consume such as herbs are naturally antibacterial, in the face of healthy Microbiome maintenance, would it be safe to continue eating those healthy foods and aromatic herbs without causing damage to our natural bodily needs? What about using the antibacterial herbs in soaps…? Is that gonna negatively balance of healthy levels of Microbiomes?

  6. Andrea Avatar

    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.

  7. Leslie Avatar

    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!

  8. Andrea Avatar

    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.

  9. Saila Avatar

    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!

  10. Michelle Avatar

    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.

  11. Grace Cohen Avatar
    Grace Cohen

    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 !

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