Smarter Living: Family Health

The use of "antibacterial" hand soaps is so widespread that we hardly give it another thought. Yet as a result almost 75 percent of Americans have been exposed to chemicals that may affect their health. And particularly worrisome is the fact that the most vulnerable of us, our children, are frequently exposed. NRDC staff scientist, Sarah Janssen, PhD, MD,  spoke with us about better practices and how to avoid "antibacterial" soaps and other products.

Smarter Living: How can you keep yourself safe from germs without using antibacterial products?

Sarah Janssen: It's impossible to keep your hands germ-free, but washing your hands frequently can help limit the transfer of bacteria, viruses and other germs and prevent illness. Using regular soap and water is the most effective way to clean your hands and regular soap doesn't carry any potential health risks like the so-called "antibacterial" products.

Hand washing is a skill, which requires vigorously rubbing your hands together for 20 seconds. Children can be encouraged to do this by singing a song such as "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." Be sure to wash around the fingernails, in the web spaces between fingers and at the base of the wrists. These zones are often missed and germs can hide there.

Be sure to wash your hands before preparing or eating food, before applying or removing contact lenses and before touching small children or sick people. Always wash your hands after preparing food, especially raw meat, going to the bathroom or changing a diaper, coughing or sneezing into your hands and leaving a public place such as public transit, a park or even the doctor's office!

Smarter Living: Washing your hands with antibacterial soap is no more effective than using regular soap and water, but is soap and water good enough when handling babies or sick children?

Sarah Janssen: Yes, good hand washing techniques using regular soap and water is preferable to using so-called "antibacterial" soaps because regular soap and water are just as effective at eliminating "germs". So called "antibacterials", like triclosan or triclocarban, are no more effective and carry potential health risks, so we advise avoiding their use.

When you're on the go, alcohol-based hand sanitizers are also effective, but check the label for ingredients. All of the added "antibacterial" chemicals added to products must appear on the label as an active ingredient.

Smarter Living: So what are triclosan and triclocarban and why are you concerned about them?

Sarah Janssen: Triclosan and triclocarban are chemicals added to personal care products, such as liquid and bar soaps, body washes, toothpaste and other personal care products for their so-called "antibacterial" properties. Triclosan is found in 75 percent of liquid hand soaps and triclocarban is used primarily in deodorant bar soaps. The widespread use of triclosan has resulted in the widespread exposure of the U.S. population--almost three-quarters of Americans carry residues of this chemical in their bodies. Triclosan and triclocarban are hormone disrupting chemicals and we are concerned that exposure to these chemicals could be causing harmful effects in humans.

Smarter Living: Are there any differences in the suspected health effects between triclosan and triclocarban--or, to put it simply, are they both just as bad?

Sarah Janssen: Both of these chemicals are hormone disrupting chemicals, but they interfere with different hormone systems and though their toxicity is not fully understood, what we do know about these chemicals is deeply concerning. Triclosan interferes with thyroid hormone. We know that other thyroid disrupting chemicals have been shown to alter development of the brain and nervous system causing problems with learning or behavior later in life and we are concerned that triclosan could have similar effects.

Triclocarban is a unique type of hormone disrupting chemical which has not been found to have any hormone disrupting properties on its own but has been shown to enhance the activity of other hormones, such as the sex hormones, estrogen and testosterone. Boosting your sex hormones isn't necessarily a good thing! For someone with a hormonally dependent cancer, that could mean more hormonal stimulation of cancer cell growth.

Furthermore, within our homes, there are many chemicals that interfere with both thyroid and sex hormones including flame retardants, BPA, and phthalates. Hormone disruptors are found in our electronics, furniture, carpeting, food packaging, drinking water, and cosmetics and personal care products. We are bombarded on a daily basis with dozens of different chemicals from many different places. While one chemical by itself may not pose a big health risk, it's this cumulative exposure that we're concerned about because all of these chemicals can act together as a group to cause greater harm than one alone.

Smarter Living: Triclosan is also used in towels and cutting boards--are there any environmental concerns about this widespread use in consumer products?

Sarah Janssen: There is concern that the widespread use of these "antibacterial" chemicals is promoting antibiotic resistance, which is a looming public health crisis. Rather than using towels or other products impregnated with "antibacterials", wash towels and other surfaces regularly with regular soap and water.

In addition, when applied to your skin or your kitchenware, these chemicals don't just stay there but eventually are washed down the drain, flowing to water treatment plants where they end up in very high concentrations in sewage sludge. Triclosan and triclocarban are highly persistent in the environment, resisting breakdown for decades. This sludge is spread on agricultural fields as fertilizer and one study has shown that earthworms in fields recently treated with sludge contained high levels of triclosan compared to earthworms from organic fields, which did not have any detectable triclosan. This is deeply concerning since worms are indicators of contaminants that are entering the food web.

Smarter Living: Who is responsible for the regulation of these chemicals and why aren't they doing more to protect our health and the environment?

Sarah Janssen: The regulation of the "antibacterial" chemicals is confusing because depending on the use, it is regulated by different federal agencies. The FDA regulates uses of these chemicals in personal care products whereas EPA regulates non-cosmetic uses of them, such as in cutting boards, clothing, shoes. So we need both the FDA and the EPA to take action.

Senator Edward Markey is pushing for action from both agencies and hopefully we .ll see progress soon.

Chemical Index: Triclosan and Triclocarban (Antibacterials)

NRDC's experts on the needed reforms to the Toxic Substances Control Act

last revised 11/2/2011

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