Why You Should Dump Your Antibacterial Soap and Sing Happy Birthday Instead


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In December, the FDA issued a proposed rule requiring manufacturers of antibacterial soaps to demonstrate both the safety and effectiveness of their products in order to keep them on the market. The proposed rule is available for public comment for 180 days.

Antibacterial consumer products proliferated beginning in the 1970s, and concerns have been around for years. Criticism of the products has fallen under three categories, namely that antibacterial soap: 1) is no more effective than regular soap; 2) may create antibiotic resistance; and 3) may have toxic effects due to ingredients like the antimicrobial agent triclosan. What does this mean exactly? You may want to seriously consider simply washing your hands instead.

Antibacterial Soap Is No More Effective than Plain Soap

In 2000, the American Medical Association registered its concern about the paucity of effectiveness and toxicity data for antimicrobial agents like triclosan used in consumer products. It also recommended that the FDA expedite its regulation of such ingredients due to concerns about antibiotic resistance.

Here is just one of many studies, published in the September 2007 issue of Clinical Infectious Diseases, which has shed light on both the ineffectiveness of triclosan. The researchers found:

Soaps containing triclosan within the range of concentrations commonly used in the community setting… were no more effective than plain soap at preventing infectious illness symptoms and reducing bacterial levels on the hands. (emphasis is mine)

Antibacterial Soap May Contribute to Antibiotic Resistance

Bacterial resistance to common antibiotics is an alarming public health trend of the last decade. According to the CDC, antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria change in some way that reduces or eliminates the effectiveness of drugs… designed to cure or prevent infections. The bacteria survive and continue to multiply, causing more harm.

Basically, if we create too many antibiotic-resistant bacteria, we could end up with an incurable bacterial infection like pneumonia. While the majority of bacterial resistance has been caused by misuse and overuse of antibiotics, there is evidence that antibacterial consumer products also contribute to antibiotic resistance. The aforementioned study found that for soaps containing triclosan, “Several laboratory studies demonstrated… a potential risk of selecting for drug resistance….”

Potential Dangers of Triclosan

According to the Environmental Working Group, triclosan is linked to liver toxicity and disruption of thyroid function. Since wastewater treatment does not remove all of the chemical, it ends up in our lakes and rivers – where it is highly toxic to aquatic life – and our water supply.

Recent studies by the EPA also uncovered “effects of triclosan on thyroid hormones and estrogen-related effects,” which caused the EPA to call for more research on the potential detrimental endocrine effects of triclosan.

According to the CDC, 75 percent of humans aged six and over surveyed in 2003-2004 had triclosan present in their urine. Presence alone is not enough to warrant concern, but considering we do not have any real data on triclosan’s effects, it is at least cause for pause.

Try These Products Instead

So what should you use in place of antibacterial soap? I searched for a liquid hand soap with a low toxicity profile on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Guide to Cosmetics and found Kiss My Face Peace Soap foaming castile hand soap, which comes in Lavender Mandarin, Grassy Mint and Lemongrass Clary Sage. I use it in both the kitchen and bathroom. I like the foaming action and it is definitely less harsh and drying than conventional hand soap.

You Are Washing Your Hands Incorrectly

Regardless of which soap you use, however, you are probably washing your hands incorrectly. When I first started working in hospitals, I learned that the best way to clean your hands was not with an alcohol-based gel like Purell — which may kill germs but doesn’t remove dirt from your skin — but with good old soap and water.

Then they taught us how to wash our hands, because the truth is that most people don’t know they must scrub for at least 15 seconds in order to completely clean their hands.

How long is 15 seconds anyway? Here is the simple trick they taught us: Sing Happy Birthday. The song is long enough to ensure you will wash sufficiently. You don’t have to sing out loud, of course, but if you do, the strange look from the person next to you can be a great way to spread the word! After all, that person speed-washing his or her hands is going to touch the handle of the doorknob before you on the way out.

Debra Cole is a Brooklyn-based writer and mom. She blogs about parenting at www.urbanmoocow.com

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