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Antibacterial soap: Healthy or harmful?

Is antibacterial soap the best choice for our homes and families? The more germs and bacteria we kill, the better, right? But new research shows that antibacterial soap is not any more effective than regular soap in preventing illness. Plus, it may harm our health and the environment.

Woman washing hands

Many liquid hand and body soaps proudly advertise that they are antibacterial. Antibacterial soaps are cleansers or sanitizers that have added chemicals that kill bacteria and microbes. A few decades ago, antibacterial soaps were mainly used in hospitals to prevent the spread of bacteria but now they have found their way into homes across the U.S., to help Americans on our cultural quest to be devoid of any germs or bacteria.

While slathering on the hand sanitizer will definitely greatly reduce the amount of germs on our hands, it is interesting to look at how that translates into the prevention of illness. Contrary to what may seem to be the logical answer, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration published reports saying that out of all the medical studies they analyzed, not a single one showed a link between antibacterial product use and a decline in infection rates. How could this be? Since bacteria and germs can make us sick, reducing bacteria must translate to healthier humans, right? The answer, surprisingly, is not that simple.

Bigger, bolder bacteria

Most antibacterial agents contain a chemical called triclosan, which many are now saying actually does more harm than good. Triclosan does do a good job at killing bacteria — all kinds of the bacteria, including the good. Our bodies need some bacteria, which is why foods that contain good bacteria like yogurt and probiotics help us stay healthy. When the good bacteria is wiped out in addition to the bad, the few strains of bacteria that are left find themselves in an inhospitable environment that is devoid of any other bacterial competition. In order to survive, whatever hardy strains are left behind oftentimes replicate and mutate. Mutated bacteria is resistant to most antibacterial products and antibiotics, leaving us with whole new stronger strains of bacteria that didn’t exist in the first place and that we can’t get rid of.

Not only is triclosan a ruthless bacteria-buster, but the overuse of triclosan can cause endocrine and thyroid hormone functioning disruption. To make matters even scarier, the tricolsan that is being washed down the drain eventually ends up in a sewage sludge, which is then used as fertilizer for farms. Talk about a full circle chemical nightmare: from our hands to the land into our food.

The safest way to suds up

The Environmental Protection Agency is, thankfully, recognizing the huge negative impact that tricolsan is having on our health and the environment and is reviewing a petition to ban it from consumer products. In the meantime, the safest bet is to suds up the old fashioned way — with good, old non-antibacterial soap.

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