Could Your Hand Soap Do More Harm Than Good?

May 29, 2013

Anti-microbial products containing triclosan may not be as effective or safe as initially thought. In the end, good-old soap and water may be what works best for your home and your school.

At Healthy Schools Campaign, we are big believers in hand-washing and emphasizing health and hygiene. We are fans of initiatives such as National Hand-Washing Day that remind students of the importance of this hygienic habit. But these days, it seems we’re getting bombarded with messages about how we need anti-microbial products to keep us safe. The trouble is, these anti-microbial products, for all the good they are supposed to do, may not be as effective or safe as initially thought. We want to focus on safer and healthier products, and in the end, good-old soap and water may be what works best for your home and your school.

The Food and Drug Administration is launching an investigation into the safety of triclosan, an ingredient added to many household cleaning products and other consumer products to reduce bacterial contamination. Triclosan is the main active ingredient in antibacterial hand soap, but can also be found in toothpaste, deodorant, cosmetics and non-toiletry items, such as kitchen utensils and children’s toys. In one word – yuck.

Although there is no clear evidence that exposure to triclosan can impact human health, recent studies of triclosan on animals show some potentially serious health risks. Hormone problems and irregularities in animals have been linked to triclosan, which, if the same holds true for humans, could mean risks of hormone-related problems such as early puberty and infertility. More disconcerting is the connection some health experts have made to the frequency of triclosan and strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or “superbugs.” There hasn’t been much research as to the effects of triclosan on antibiotic resistance in a real-world environment, but laboratory studies have shown that E. coli and other antibiotic-resistant strains can grow in environments with high levels of triclosan.

In addition to potential hazards, triclosan may not even be beneficial. A recent study from the University of Michigan suggests that triclosan may be nothing more than “a superfluous chemical”.  Essentially, at worst, triclosan is a nasty chemical that could cause potential health hazards and decrease our resistance to antibiotics, and, at best, it’s a superfluous chemical that does nothing more than regular soap would – except make the manufacturing of hand soap more expensive.

In our Quick + Easy Guide to Green Cleaning in Schools, we recommend schools use soaps that either have no anti-bacterial agents, or are certified green by the U.S. EPA’s DfE, GreenSeal or ULE standards. And for use at home, we’d recommend looking for soaps without triclosan.

The FDA investigation is still ongoing, but in the meantime, many healthcare organizations and companies have taken another look at triclosan. Kaiser Permanente no longer uses toiletries containing triclosan in any of its 37 hospitals as of 2010, and consumer and pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson has pledged to remove triclosan from its products by 2015.

At this time, FDA does not have evidence that triclosan added to antibacterial soaps and body washes provides extra health benefits over soap and water. We look forward to the administration providing more up-to-date information on the safety and effectiveness of triclosan. We will keep you posted with new updates as the investigation continues. In the meantime, be sure to continue teaching the importance of regular hand-washing, but regular soap and water will do just fine.