Antibacterial Soap Danger Still a Hot Topic

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It seems like every week we see another major news article on the dangers of antimicrobial soap use in the home. Just yesterday our local newspaper had a two page article that has been syndicated by the Washington Post. I have written about antibacterial soap use before, and this is just an update addressing a few questions I received in email a while back. Most of the information I have gathered on this is readily available on line. If you only have the time to follow one link to information on this subject, I would recommend the Beyond Pesticides fact sheet, available as a PDF file .

The first question was how regular soap works and why should we believe it does as good a job as antibacterial soap? Without getting too technical, soap is simply made up of a base and an acid and has two main purposes. Soap decreases the surface tension of water and adheres to dirt, oil, bacteria, viruses and the like. When you lather the soap, this all combines together and is easily washed down the drain. Antibacterial soap does not do this job any better than regular soap.

The second question was are germ killing products antibacterial and do they pose the same danger as antibacterial products? The simple answer to this is that germ killing products, (those with bleach or other disinfectants), do not contain antibiotics. They are different than antibiotics in that there is no evidence that I can find that they contribute to “super bug” problems like MRSA. Still, I am concerned enough about our exposure to harsh chemicals that I try to avoid the use of these products also.

The last question was why do so many people keep using antimicrobial soap even with all the publicity stating that we should not? I think there are several reasons for this, but first and foremost is effective marketing by the makers of “antibacterial” soap. People are understandably concerned about the health and safety of themselves and their families and easily believe the hype that products containing antibiotics are better. In reality, the opposite may be the case. The antibiotic used in all these products has been claimed by the EPA to be contaminated by dioxins. The dioxins are formed during the antibiotic manufacturing process so can not be avoided in the final product. Additionally when triclosan, the antibiotic used in these products, combines with chlorinated tap water, a super dioxin is formed.

Another reason is availability. A recent study concluded that approximately 75% of the liquid soaps on the market are antibacterial. Until recently some large retailers only carried this type of liquid soap. In a previous post, I showed the text of a letter to Costco asking them to discontinue selling antibacterial soap. I believe they must have had others write them also because Costco is now offering liquid soap that is antibiotic free.

There has been an explosion of triclosan antibiotic use in all kinds of products. Take a look at this list to see some of its uses. Another problem caused by the explosion of antibacterial products is environmental. The antibiotic used, triclosan, causes all kinds of problems when washed down the drain. Even when this drain water is treated at whitewater treatment plants, triclosan is not removed. It is highly toxic to algae and is thought to have detrimental endocrine effects on fish .

It is obvious to me from my reading that using antibiotic soap does not make you any safer from dangerous germs. In fact the opposite is likely true. The products themselves possibly pose health dangers to you and the environment. Plus, as more and more germs breed resistance to antibiotics, the risk from untreatable infections rises. I urge everyone again… Please do not use antibacterial soap.

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Will Sig
1 Bob

Hi Will, my office just bought a bunch of purell with the cute dispensers, some staff members use this stuff 5, 6 times a day the office smells like a hospital, is this stuff no good as well?

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2 Will

Hi Bob! I actually received two emails last night with similar questions, so I had drafted another article to post today. After seeing your question, I edited that draft as these liquid hand sanitizers are quickly becoming the most commonly used of these products. Thanks!

In brief, the sanitizer pumps do not pose the same risk of bacteria mutations as the antibacterial soap does. Still, I don’t use them unless I see a very pressing reason in a place where I can not just wash my hands.

-Will

Just as a note of appreciation to the folks who have used the buttons to digg and stumble some of my articles… Thanks! It really does seem to bring in some new readers. I would recommend trying to install the widgets yourselves if you have a web site.

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3 paulette

Thank you Will for the information. Being influenced by my Environmentalist Boss, it is my concerned to be aware of the things that might harm our environment. We must be aware of those hazardous chemicals and avoid using them for environmental protection purposes in order to preserve things we have right now for the welfare of our children.

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4 Melissa

Will,
I live in a household were everyone uses antibacterial dish soap to shower and shampoo with? This boggles my mind.
No one that lives here seems to think anything is wrong with it
how the heck do I wake these people up? They all think I am taking crazy pills.

Melissa

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5 Will

Hi Melissa! Send them here to read my 3 posts on the topic. Maybe that will help?

The main thing is to try and get them to understand is that there is no downside to discontinuing use of it. The product does not have any benefits to normal, healthy people who use it, so why not get the chemical out or your system and stop contributing to all these resistant bugs we keep hearing about.

Keep fighting the good fight!

-Will

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6 Wendy Wakefield Ferrin

While I understand that your soap posts are “dated” the information related to use of soap vs antibacterial liquids is current and critical. As Founding Director of The SOPE Project (http://www.sope.net) I salute you! btw did you know that sope is the Elizabethan English way to spell what we call soap? A nice way to demonstrate that the “American way” isn’t necessarily the right way, nor the only way.

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7 Will

Hi Wendy – Cool site you have linked there! Interesting to think that posts 6 months old are dated. The world of blogs, I guess. Still the information is important. I think the message is getting out about triclosan and that is a good thing. Thanks for your comment!

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8 Medical Oddities

I keep hand sanitizer with me at all times because I’m kind of a germaphobe. I don’t think soap can really be much of a danger, it just seems like another thing people can get mad about.

Medical Odditiess last blog post..Liberty Medical Supplies

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9 Mike

Interesting post, I didn’t know that antibacterial soap contained harsh chemicals. Originally I thought the post was going to talk about how antibacterial soap is killing germs making it more likely that you would get sick due to lack of antibodies built up.

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10 Sean

While I agree with your conclusion that antibacterial soaps are not necessary – and can have detrimental effects – the statement that the dioxins formed by triclosan and water are a threat seems to be contradicted and summarized here: http://www.dioxinfacts.org/dioxin_health/dioxin_rumors/triclosan.html.

I only mention because it’s important to get the facts out without overstating the problem.

-Sean

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11 Lyndsie

I agree with Sean. You can see this paper by Dr. Stuart Levy presented for a CDC conference with “real live” info and not just anecdotal info on the antibiotic/antibacterial effects as well as the cause for concern over allergies. http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/EID/vol7no3_supp/levy.htm

Also, just a small thing of note. Soaps are made from bases and fats, not acids and bases. Acids and bases make salts and water.

Like you, I don’t see any reason to cover myself or my family in any more chemicals than necessary.

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12 Will

Thanks Sean. I don’t know who to believe about the dioxins. A web site with the url dioxinfact.org and the stamp “American Chemical Council”, does not seem to be the most reliable and unbiased place to get the truth?

Thanks for that link on the allergies, Lyndsie. I always thought making soap involves the grouping of a base and an acid to form a salt. Isn’t that what Saponification is? Actually now that I dig into my memory, I believe the oils and fats used in soap making are technically acids, but I am no soap expert, that is for sure!

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13 Lyndsie

Actually, saponification is the process that turns a carboxy ester (a fat) and a base into soap. The part that you probably remember is that the carboxy esters are made from fatty acids, for instance, triglycerides (a carboxy ester) are made from glycerol, an alcohol, and three fatty acids.

Soap making is a fun kitchen chemistry project with kids and good for school science demonstrations. And kind of entertaining as a hobby, too.

I am always happy to see people interested in chemistry, or science, of any kind. Knowing the basics will help people make sensible consumer decisions rather than just following after fear based sensationalism.

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14 Obsolete Parts Distributor

In my home everyone uses antibacterial dish soap to shower This boggles my mind. these chemical might harm our environment but we to use it there is no any option.

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15 Paul

Educate everyone in your household about not only the ineffectiveness but the dangers of using antibacterial soap. If they won’t listen to you, show them articles like the one on this website. Also, next time you’re in a store, you or the person(s) in your household who buy soap should complain to the manager. My complaint by itself and your complaint by itself may not seem like it means much, but if enough people complain it can have a positive effect on the purchasing decisions stores make when buying things like soap from the manufacturer. As I mentioned earlier, you can also go to many of these stores’ and manufacturers’ websites and complain.

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16 Mark

Wow, ok, you’ve convinced me. I’m staying away from the stuff! Regular soap seems to have been fine all this time but corporations just want to keep adding chemicals into our lives. And people wonder why there are more cases of cancer.

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17 Keith

The driving question in my mind about antibacterial soap products is this: Do I trust this corporation to look after my best interests? I will state the obvious. The answer to that question is No.

I tell my kids all the time that, just because something doesn’t kill you right away, that doesn’t mean it isn’t poison. Not enough long-term studies are conducted on these chemicals.

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18 Will

“I tell my kids all the time that, just because something doesn’t kill you right away, that doesn’t mean it isn’t poison.”
That is a good thing for them to understand. It is the insidious, long term exposures that are getting so worrisome.

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19 Extrem

Interesting post, I didn’t know that antibacterial soap contained harsh chemicals. Originally I thought the post was going to talk about how antibacterial soap is killing germs making it more likely that you would get sick due to lack of antibodies built up.ss

Really?

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20 Paul

Thank you for your article. It’s good to see I’m not alone. I went to my local Costco just a week ago, and all they had was the antibacterial liquid “Soft Soap”. I politely complained to the manager onsite. He seemed to be unaware of the publicity surrounding the dangers using antibacterial soap, but I explained to him how similar it is to the over-use of antibiotics and the creation of things like more resistant TB that’s getting harder and harder to treat. He was polite, but seemed indifferent. I also emailed Costco’s website and complained about it (explaining the same reasons why it antibacterials are harmful) and to “please stop pushing antibacterial soap on everyone”.

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21 Sherry Berkley

Hi Will,
I must disclose I own Berkley Green,we are an EPA certified producer of Green household cleaners and laundry products. We have been at it for 7 years. You are so correct on everything. The problem is the consumer has no idea how dangerous their household cleaners are.The companies that make them don’t care.. They own the shelf space in the stores and until the consumer makes the connection between the Rise in Autism, Cancer, Allergies and Auto Immune diseases. Nothing will change. It is all about the money..Plus lets not forget all the “Super Bugs ” these quote.. anti-bacterical products are killing (not).As long as people keep buying products with toxic chemicals the retailers have no motivation to stock their shelves with anything else We just joined forces with Susan G. Komen ,to try to make women aware of the fact that the household chemicals among all the other dangers they also mimic estrogen. I their bodies…Breast Cancer is up 26% since 1985… Thank you for the work you do..
Best Regards,
Sherry Berkley

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22 Walter Andersen

This is a very important issue. I always try and keep healthy habits. I keep a hand sanitizer in my pocket all the time. if this thing is really dangerous than I know a lot of people who need to start worrying.
How dangerous is it really?

Thanks for sharing.

-Walter

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23 Sherry Berkley

Hi,
My name is Sherry Berkley and I am the owner of Berkley Green we are a small EPA certified manufactuer of Green Household Cleaners and Laundry prodcuts. Most of the non -green non certified household cleaners we are using today are toxic to our health as well as our pets.. But the retails buy what the consumer wants.People do not know and in some cases I find do not believe when you tell them the information.The other deal with all these sanitiers are they are tested in a controlled enviroment to make the “kill claim. If you read any other instructions for use. The proudct has to sit on the surface for 10 miniutes to have an effective kill rate. That is why we are creating super bugs.. By the way Im sure you know Clean Well is being sued for false and misleading advertising on their prodcut which you find in both 7th Gen. and Method But no one has pulled it from the shelves..Keep up the good work..The only way things will ever change is if people realize green products clean just as well and in some cases better..and buy them at retail..

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24 Ron Lentjes

I’ll never forget this one from school days! All this stuff about super clean oh no their is a bug on your counter top. Quick, disinfect now with new product X. oh no the world is going to end! In social studies class their was a case of a kid eating dirt what to do? Most said kid was crazy. I say EAT DIRT. Get all the DIRT you can. Why? Antibodies. The immune system! The more you sterilize your environment, the more you’ll die when you open your front door! So EAT DIRT. And be happy. (The comments in this comment are not necessarily those comments of the corporation of above mentioned product X or its media sublimers or profiteers) Have a good day. Ron Lentjes.

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25 Tony McGurk

I think you made a good point Will on the marketing. People see not only advertising about it but even just the “Antibacterial” on the packaging & instantly think “Hey this is better because it kills germs”.

Along similar lines of what Ron in the comment above said, I used to work with a bloke when we lived in Brisbane & he was totally germophobic. If he shook hands with a customer he’d go wash his hands with disinfectant as soon as they left.

If he took rubbish to the dump he would make his kids wear masks & disposable gloves as well as himself. At work there were boxes & boxes of disposable gloves in the stationary cupboard all for his use. He was the boss.

I could go on for ages about all his weird anti-germ quirks but the thing was that the whole family were always sick. Especially the kids. I always believed that they weren’t getting enough exposure to germs to build up their immunity.
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