Antibacterial Soaps: Are They Safe?

If you’re using antibacterial soaps, they probably contain the ingredient triclosan. And this antibacterial agent, which is commonly used in many household products today, may not be completely harmless.

What is it?

Triclosan is a chemical that can inhibit bacterial growth.

Where is it found?

In many household products, including but not limited to: soaps, toothpastes, mouthwashes, bodywashes, cleaning products, clothes, kitchenware, toys, furniture, and products made of wood.

What are the concerns?

This is where it gets confusing. Nothing is proven yet, and the FDA doesn’t feel that there is enough evidence of danger from triclosan exposure to warrant removing it from products. The FDA has enough concern about triclosan, however, for the agency to be investing time and money in more detailed and comprehensive research into potential hazards from triclosan, such as:

  • Bacterial resistance. One concern is that bacteria will develop resistance to the antibacterial property of triclosan. This is similar to the increasing bacterial resistance to antibiotics from antibiotic overuse. In fact, the American Medical Association and American Academy of Pediatrics both recommend that we use plain soaps instead of antibacterial soap products. A plain bar of soap, it turns out, is just as effective at cleansing hands if proper handwashing techniques are used.
  • Environment. The triclosan chemical can also accumulate in bodies of water, where it has an impact on the environment. Some aquatic bacteria considered “good” for plant life and sea animals have been shown to be destroyed by elevated triclosan levels.
  • Hayfever. Some studies have suggested that people with increased exposure to triclosan may develop more hayfever and allergies. Again, this has not been proven.
  • Hormonal regulation. Some animal studies looking at triclosan exposure showed alterations in bodily processes such as thyroid regulation and growth. However, effects observed in animal studies are not necessarily seen in humans with the same exposure.

What does all this mean?

As with many scientific findings these days, these reports don’t mean you should panic. However, you should be aware and stay educated about triclosan.

And maybe you’ll want to consider limiting your exposure to triclosan when possible. Because the FDA regulates items such as soaps, body wash, mouthwash, and toothpaste, triclosan is required to be listed in the ingredients. So you can try to find alternatives that don’t contain triclosan when possible.

I'm not one to be an alarmist, but I do think that when the FDA becomes concerned enough to investigate a substance, it can’t hurt for the rest of us to limit our exposure to that substance while its effects are still being debated.

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