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  Antibacterial soaps do more harm than good

Antibacterial soaps do more harm than good

WWW.ARSTECHNICA.COM
Published : Apr 12, 2016, 10:55 pm IST
Updated : Apr 12, 2016, 10:55 pm IST

Scientists report that common antibacterial compounds found in those soaps may increase the risk of infections

HAND10.jpg
 HAND10.jpg

Scientists report that common antibacterial compounds found in those soaps may increase the risk of infections

Whether you’re coming home from an airport fluttering with international germs, a daycare full of sticky-fingered toddlers, or just a grimy office building, scrubbing your hands with bacteria-busting soap seems like a great idea. But the data that have washed up on the cleansers in recent years suggest that they actually do more harm than good — for you, those around you, and the environment.

Scientists report that common antibacterial compounds found in those soaps, namely triclosan and triclocarban, may increase the risk of infections, alter the gut microbiome, and spur bacteria to become resistant to prescription antibiotics. Meanwhile, proof of the soaps’ benefits is slim.

There are specific circumstances in which those antimicrobials can be useful, civil engineer Patrick McNamara of Marquette University in Milwaukee told Ars. Triclosan, for instance, may be useful to doctors scrubbing for minutes at a time before a surgery or for hospital patients who can’t necessarily scrub with soap but could soak in a chemical bath. Triclosan and triclocarban do kill off bacteria during long washes. But most people only clean their hands for a few seconds.

“There’s evidence that there is no improvement with using soaps that have these chemicals relative to washing your hands under warm water for 30 seconds with soaps without these chemicals,” he said.

And the point hasn’t been lost on the US Food and Drug Administration. Though the agency ruled years ago that triclosan and other antimicrobials are safe, it’s now revisiting claims that the chemicals make soaps and other personal care products better. The FDA has asked antibacterial soap makers to send in data showing that their soaps beat out regular soaps at keeping people germ-free and healthy. The agency expects to announce this September whether the submitted data pass muster. If they don't, the companies that make up the $5.5 billion soap market may be forced to ditch the chemicals entirely.

Sullied Soaps In the meantime, however, researchers seem to be digging up more and more dirt on the chemicals, particularly triclosan. This antimicrobial is widely used in not just hand soaps, but body washes, shampoos, toothpastes, cosmetics, household cleaners, medical equipment, and more. And it’s just as pervasive in people as it is in homes and clinics. Triclosan easily enters bodies by ingestion (think toothpaste) or skin absorption. It’s commonly found in people’s urine, blood and breast milk.