The Real Dirt on Antibacterial Soaps


When I was growing up, we played outside, got our hands dirty, and washed up when we got home. Getting clean was a low-tech affair involving just basic soap, hot water, and a good scrub. There were no antibacterial hand soaps, foams, or potions to ‘protect’ us from germs.

By the late 1980s, though, “dirt” became a dirty word and the personal-care industry thought it wise to basically carpet-bomb bacteria off of millions of adults and children with the help of antibacterial soaps. The primary motivation was to stop the spread of colds and flu, despite the fact that they’re caused by viruses which antibacterials have no effect on.

Even worse? Virtually all of the antibacterials millions of people have slathered on for the last 30-plus years have contained chemicals like triclosan, a toxic ingredient that is not only linked with hormone disruption, muscle weakness, allergies, and liver cancer, but is a contributing factor in the rising tide of antibiotic resistance. Not surprisingly, triclosan also pollutes soil and groundwater and damages marine life, so there really is no good reason to use the stuff, unless perhaps you’re scrubbing up for surgery, which most of us aren’t.

Fortunately, just a couple months ago, the FDA banned the use of triclosan (and its cousin, triclocarban) in hand soaps and body washes. Score one for the consumer. But, the phase-out won’t take full effect for another year, and even then triclosan will still be found in many other products you likely use every day — and this is a chemical that was registered as a pesticide back in 1969!

Hopefully, in the next few years triclosan use will be phased out of consumer products altogether, but until then, you’ll need to be the enforcer. Here are a few tips on how you can avoid triclosan in its many guises — and still be a clean machine:

Check your toothpaste. Yup, you’re probably brushing your teeth with triclosan. Hard to believe, but triclosan turns up in loads of products that many of us use several times a day, including toothpaste and mouth rinses — you know, the stuff that make us think we’re doing something good for our oral health! By all means, keep brushing and rinsing but switch from any toothpaste or rinse that contains triclosan to healthier, triclosan-free versions.

You’re probably covering your face and body with it too. When you start to really look for the stuff, it’s astounding how prevalent triclosan is, and it goes far beyond antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizers. You’ll find it in many brands of deodorant, anti-perspirant, shaving gel, shampoo, skin and facial moisturizers, as well as lipstick, foundation, eye makeup and facial cleansers to name a few. In other words, just about everything you’d typically apply in the morning before heading to the office is laden with triclosan. Not the healthiest way to start your day!

Start reading — and steer clear. If a personal care product contains triclosan (or triclocarban), it will be listed on the label. It will be in the fine print, but it’s definitely worth busting out the magnifying glass to do the detective work. You do not want this stuff seeping into your system and collecting in tissues where it can start to do damage. If you currently have a bathroom cabinet loaded with triclosan-containing products, over time, as you run through them, replace them with healthier alternatives.

Get smart and buy wisely. When it comes to product safety ratings, one of the best organizations around is the Environmental Working Group (EWG). If you want to sidestep triclosan, I highly recommend not only reading labels but also shopping for healthier choices based on the EWG’s comprehensive Skin Deep database of more than 68,000 personal care products, rated and ranked for their safety (or lack thereof).

Clean up your act. By all means, keep your hands clean to help keep germs at bay — particularly as we head into winter. But, choose simple bar soaps or liquid hand soaps that don’t contain triclosan and stay far away from antibacterial soaps, gels, and wipes. Simply use soap and hot water for 20 – 30 seconds, and be sure to lather up the front and back of your hands and under the nails.

For more ideas on toxins to purge from your daily routine, check out Toxins in Your Personal Care Products.