IN THE RISK/BENEFIT equation, antibacterial soaps are on the verge of losing the battle once and for all. Early in 2014, the FDA took the new position that manufacturers have until 2016 to demonstrate that their antimicrobial products are both safe and more effective than conventional soap and water, or else these products must be taken off the shelves. Meanwhile experts from such varied places as the World Health Organization and Smithsonian Magazine have already concluded that the risks aren’t worth it.
For most antibacterial soaps, the active ingredient is triclosan, which is touted to inhibit the growth of bacteria and other microbes on the skin, as described in MyLittleBird’s story on antiperspirants. Evidence from more than 40 years of FDA research plus many independent studies, however, shows that, despite killing slightly more bacteria than conventional soap, soaps with triclosan do not lead to clinical benefits: they do not reduce infection rates due to the transmission of respiratory and gastrointestinal germs. In Smithsonian magazine, Joseph Stromberg writes, “We’re here to tell you” to stop using antibacterial soap. Among the risks of triclosan, which is also used in acne cream and toothpaste, is the creation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, such as the life-threatening MRSA. Also, in animal studies, triclosan acts as an “endocrine disruptor,” interfering with regulation of thyroid hormones leading to problems such as infertility, early puberty, obesity and cancer. Finally, triclosan has been shown to interfere with muscle contractions in human cells.
The Mayo Clinic recently stated that there isn’t enough evidence yet to recommend avoiding triclosan, but notes that research has “raised questions about whether triclosan might be hazardous to human health.” Antibacterial soaps also “are usually the most damaging” at stripping moisture from your skin, according to a Mayo Clinic report.
Purell doesn’t contain triclosan but relies instead on alcohol, also rough on dry skin. And while Purell kills both bacteria and viruses, it doesn’t remove anything else like dirt. Outside of hospitals, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends old-fashioned soap and water, not necessarily hot water, and scrubbing for about 30 seconds to get clean.
A New York Times article titled “The Horror of Handshakes” describes a British study comparing the amount of E.coli transmitted by strong handshakes, weak handshakes, high-fives and fist bumps. The researchers found twice as many bacteria transmitted by strong handshakes as high-fives, and fist bumps were best. A recent editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association advised banning handshakes in medical facilities.
On the other hand, as reader Stephen Gins responding to the New York Times article points out, “Touch is fundamental to our natures and plays important roles in child-rearing, mating, social bonding, etc…. The transfer of microorganisms in handshakes is simply a consequence of our living in a world of complex biology…A lack of physical contact is more damaging to individuals of our species than the incidental exchange of omnipresent bacteria.”