Hand soaps and other cleaning products are often marketed as “antibacterial,” suggesting that they provide a level of cleanliness superior to that of conventional soaps and cleansers. But are the antibacterial ingredients in these products really safe and effective?
About 75% of antibacterial liquid hand soaps and 30% of bar soaps contain the chemical triclosan, a phenolic. Triclosan blocks an enzyme in the bacterial fatty acid-biosynthesis pathway that is not found in the comparable human pathway. Although the use of triclosan in the home increased dramatically during the 1990s, more than 40 years of research by the FDA have turned up no conclusive evidence that washing with triclosan-containing products provides increased health benefits compared with washing with traditional soap. Although some studies indicate that fewer bacteria may remain on a person’s hands after washing with triclosan-based soap, compared with traditional soap, no evidence points to any reduction in the transmission of bacteria that cause respiratory and gastrointestinal illness. In short, soaps with triclosan may remove or kill a few more germs but not enough to reduce the spread of disease.
Perhaps more disturbing, some clear risks associated with triclosan-based soaps have come to light. The widespread use of triclosan has led to an increase in triclosan-resistant bacterial strains, including those of clinical importance, such as Salmonella enterica; this resistance may render triclosan useless as an antibacterial in the long run. Bacteria can easily gain resistance to triclosan through a change to a single gene encoding the targeted enzyme in the bacterial fatty acid-synthesis pathway. Other disinfectants with a less specific mode of action are much less prone to engendering resistance because it would take much more than a single genetic change.
Use of triclosan over the last several decades has also led to a buildup of the chemical in the environment. Triclosan in hand soap is directly introduced into wastewater and sewage systems as a result of the handwashing process. There, its antibacterial properties can inhibit or kill bacteria responsible for the decomposition of sewage, causing septic systems to clog and back up. Eventually, triclosan in wastewater finds its way into surface waters, streams, lakes, sediments, and soils, disrupting natural populations of bacteria that carry out important environmental functions, such as inhibiting algae. Triclosan also finds its way into the bodies of amphibians and fish, where it can act as an endocrine disruptor. Detectable levels of triclosan have also been found in various human bodily fluids, including breast milk, plasma, and urine. In fact, a study conducted by the CDC found detectable levels of triclosan in the urine of 75% of 2,517 people tested in 2003–2004. This finding is even more troubling given the evidence that triclosan may affect immune function in humans.
In December 2013, the FDA gave soap manufacturers until 2016 to prove that antibacterial soaps provide a significant benefit over traditional soaps; if unable to do so, manufacturers will be forced to remove these products from the market.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology