Antibacterial Soap: As Useless As Your Multivitamin

Hand washingIt hasn’t been a good week for a couple of daily household items common in millions of homes across the world. First we had nail-in-the-coffin proof that our daily multivitamins are useless for the great majority of people in preventing any disease or prolonging life. Now we find out that antibacterial soaps not only are useless but possibly harmful, and the FDA may step in and regulate the entire industry. There goes half of my Christmas stocking stuffers!

Let’s be clear here that the FDA is specifically referring to the consumer products which contain the pesticide chemical called triclosan. The alcohol-based hand washes are still considered effective and safe. So what is the FDA so worried about? In their Consumer Update this week, they have three concerns:

  1. Triclosan looks to be an endocrine disruptor in animal studies, getting absorbed and messing around with hormones in ways we’re still unclear about  (the same concerns behind BPA and other chemicals)  — but concerning enough that most companies have already started to bow to consumer pressure and are already phasing triclosan out.
  2. Triclosan use makes the surviving bacteria stronger, leading to resistance in the community. So when you actually have a real bacterial infection and might need antibiotics for real, your pills may no longer be effective.
  3. Triclosan levels are popping up in the general community and literally downstream from waste plants, and given the possible endocrine harm, it may be a good idea to limit future exposure.

Perhaps most importantly, there is zero evidence that triclosan soaps wipe out more bacteria than simple soap and water! The FDA now is going to require companies selling such soaps and body washes to provide actual data showing not only that they wipe out bacteria, but that they don’t breed resistance. Plus, they will have to prove that they are more effective than simple soap and water. Such studies are very expensive, likely drying up most of this market. I say good riddance. It was always pure marketing, anyway, with plenty of warnings from public health researchers about potential harm. Here is a scary quote from the FDA (via a Wired article) about the potential hormonal harm:

…triclosan is an antiseptic active ingredient commonly found in consumer antiseptic hand and body wash products. It is absorbed through the skin and has been found in both human breast milk and urine. Further, triclosan has been found at relatively consistent levels in urine samples collected from a representative sample of the U.S. population since sampling began in 2003. We believe that the consequences of this systemic exposure need to be assessed.

One effect of systemic exposure to consumer antiseptic wash ingredients that has come to our attention since publication of the 1994 TFM is data suggesting that triclosan and triclocarban can cause alterations in thyroid, reproductive, growth, and developmental systems of neonatal and adolescent animals. Hormonally active compounds have been shown to affect not only the exposed organism, but also subsequent generations. These effects may not be related to direct deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) mutation, but rather to alterations in factors that regulate gene expression.

A hormonally active compound that causes reproductive system disruption in the fetus or infant may have effects that are not apparent until many years after initial exposure. There are also critical times in fetal development when a change in hormonal balance that would not cause any lasting effect in an adult could cause a permanent developmental abnormality in a child.

The sad point about all of this is that we’re all usually buying these products to protect us from colds and flu — almost all of which are caused by viruses, and not bacteria. Thus, the triclosan is useless in the first place!

My advice? Throw away any of your home products with triclosan, and stick to soap and water. And throw a small alcohol-based hand gel into your day bag. It’s all too common around here not to find any soap in the bathrooms…or running water…or hand towels…or all three…and don’t get me started on the toilet paper issue…

Follow me on:
Twitter @RichardStCyrMD
Facebook @BainbridgeBabaDoc

2 thoughts on “Antibacterial Soap: As Useless As Your Multivitamin”

  1. Good afternoon Doctor,
    I’m a bit concerned about the use of a sponge instead of toilet paper or a combined use of toilet paper and a wet sponge.
    For many reasons, I believe that the use of toilet paper must be reduced somehow so I wonder if switching to a synthetic sponge, alone or combined with toilet paper is safe.
    Will washing the sponge, under water, immediately after using it will suffice to keep it safe to use the next time?
    What measures should I take if I would like to stop using toilet paper at home? Is there any substitute that is safe and Eco-friendly?
    I hope there is a safe alternative at home.

  2. I think you had better check your research source on the vitamins. Most of the anti-vitamin reports have been funded by pharmaceutical companies who certainly have a slightly slanted vested interest. And WHICH vitamins are you using should certainly be at the core of the research. A new find is that over half of the reported research even in well-respected medical journals either is either blatantly untrue or with more research proves to be false.
    The anti-bacterial soap, on the other hand, a pharmaceutical product, does have ingredients that are well-known as a hormone disruptor and it is good that you expose this danger.

Leave a Reply