The verdict is in: Antibacterial soap is no more effective at getting your hands clean and germ-free than regular, garden-variety soap. And, if your antibacterial soap contains triclosan, it could be dangerous when mixed with chlorinated water. Ouch!
First, let’s quickly look at triclosan, which is the active ingredient in antibacterial soaps. Triclosan reacts with chlorine, forming chloroform, which is a potential carcinogen. Using antibacterial soap could increase your exposure to chloroform by 15 to 40% above what the EPA deems safe for tap water. What’s more is that triclosan has been linked to allergies and antibiotic resistance plus, it’s a contaminant.
Antibacterial soaps do actually kill more germs than regular soaps, but regular soap just washes the germs down the drain. As long as they are off of you, what’s the difference? The FDA has expressed concern that antibacterial soaps may be giving resistant bacteria a leg up, but changes that require stricter labels or limits on advertising claims could be over a year away (as of 2007).
Antibacterial soaps and alcohol based hand gels are commonplace in hospitals and medical facilities and may have a legitimate place in such places, but these products most likely have little use or place in the common household or office. The exception could be the evaporating alcohol-based cleansers, which come in handy in settings where there isn’t sink, soap and water ready and available, like in a daycare, or when you are camping.
Bacteria resistance is a concern to the FDA, as is the environmental impact of antibacterial soaps. The chemicals from these soaps can accumulate in ground water and soil contaminating water supplies and farmed food. And while the risk of bacterial resistance is theoretical, many researchers are taking the possibility very seriously, as many bacteria strains have shown strong resistance to strong drugs. The question becomes, “Why would an antibacterial soap not cause the same type of resistance”?
There is no indication that antibacterial soaps are going to be pulled from store shelves, or even come with warnings anytime soon. If you are making your own soap at home, stick with it, and don’t bother purchasing antibacterials. If you are using antibacterial soaps, consider going back to conventional soap. Stick with the advice your mother and grandmother gave you – “Go wash your hands!”. Just wash them whenever you are getting ready to eat, prepare food, when you’ve been to the bathroom, after being in a public place and touching things that others have touched. Give yourself a good long lather, rinse well, and call good-bye to the germs as they are rinsed down the drain.