The Dangers of Antibacterial Soap

Hand soap with Triclosan. Courtesy of CAPL Washington and Jefferson College

When buying soap and cleaning products, most consumers purposefully purchase brands that are known for being antibacterial. It has been well advertised that antibacterial products are necessary for keeping people and their families safe from getting sick; as it turns out, this assumption that antibacterial is better is not being confirmed by modern research.  Additionally, the active ingredient in antibacterial soap, triclosan, is bad for the environment and potentially dangerous for humans.

Triclosan is a molecule that contains mostly carbons and chlorine, and was first patented in 1964. While that molecular makeup seems harmless, especially considering all healthy, organic compounds contain carbon and chlorine is a common atom that humans are exposed to, the particular structure may actually be detrimental to the environment and human health.

Triclosan works by killing microorganisms, usually bacteria, rapidly and nonspecifically. This happens when the molecule stops the bacteria from making fatty acids, which in turn prevents the bacteria from making a cell membrane. This mechanism seems like a perfect solution for pesky bacteria: killing them by damaging their shells, but it also has the potential to affect human hormones, kill microorganisms that are good, and create unnecessary antibiotic resistance.

The FDA is currently taking a closer look at the actual benefits and side effects of triclosan to reevaluate if it should even be on the public market. Originally, triclosan was used as a pesticide in 1969, but is now being used as a general antibacterial product. While it was always assumed that having an antibacterial component was necessary for maximized cleaning, Colleen Rogers, a Ph.D. microbiologist for the FDA, now says that currently, there is no evidence that over-the-counter antibacterial soap products are any more effective at preventing illness than washing with plain soap and water. The FDA is concerned that triclosan is in too many products unnecessarily, especially considering the fact that it is a pollutant.

In addition to this reevaluation on its actually usefulness for humans, research is being published that confirms that triclosan is harmful for humans. Rolf Halden, the Founding Director of the Center for Environmental Security at the Biodesign Institute and a professor at Arizona State University, says that exposure to triclosan causes “irritation of eyes and skin, sensitization to aeroallergens and food, immunologic reactions such as allergies, developmental and reproductive toxicity, inhibition of muscle function, as well as in vivo genotoxicity.”

Additionally, the EPA fact sheet for triclosan, confirms these claims by stating that human health risks associated with this compound include hormone effects, developmental and reproductive toxicity, chronic toxicity, and carcinogenicity.

Although triclosan has been proven to have negative side effects when in the human body, is this a concern because soaps are all topical? Halden says that triclosan “has been detected in drinking water resources, 75% of urine samples representative of the U.S. population, 97% of representative U.S. breast milk samples. Triclosan is therefore a real threat to humans, which should deter the public from continuing to purchase these dangerous cleaning and washing products. The good news is that exposure to triclosan is completely voluntary; one has to purchase products with triclosan as the active ingredient in order to be dangerously exposed to it.

What happens once people use triclosan and it goes down the drain? Fortunately, approximately 75% of triclosan is removed from wastewater during treatment. Although the triclosan is pretty effectively removed from waste water, it is still highly detected as a contaminant in most streams and rivers. In fact, in 2002, triclosan was reported as one of the top ten contaminants of American rivers and there is a 60-100 percent likelihood of any random U.S. stream to have triclosan present in a sample.

Triclosan has the same hormone effects on animals as it does on humans. It has been discovered in aquatic blackworms, fish, and even dolphins. For actual plants, exposure to triclosan reduces the efficiency of photosynthesis. By harming plants, including algae, Karina Petersen, an ecotoxicology research scientist, says that triclosan “might possibly lead to shifts in the nutrient processing capacity and food web structure.” Essentially, when the plants and microorganisms are negatively affected by triclosan, larger organisms, including humans, will be indirectly harmed.

Lastly, overuse of antibacterial products leads to the evolution and adaption of actual bacteria.  Once the bacteria evolve, there is a resistance to the product. Overuse of antibacterial cleaners by humans will ultimately create bacteria that cannot be killed. Environmental microbial communities already are becoming reservoirs of antibiotic drug resistance.

While triclosan clearly has many negative impacts on both the environment and humans, the good news is that it is unnecessary for consumers to even use. Since regular soap and water is just as effective, people should reduce and stop usage of products with triclosan. Avoiding triclosan can help prevent human endangerment as well as reduce pollution in the environment.

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