The Dirt on Antibacterial Soaps

After almost 40 years and an NRDC lawsuit, the FDA is about to burst the triclosan bubble.

Soap bubbles on a black background

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Stroll the aisles of any large retail store and one thing will become immediately clear: We've got a thing for antibacterial products. From soaps to sprays, wipes to creams—and from the supermarket to the hardware store—promises of germ-free hands and surfaces abound. Fear sells, after all, and marketers know it.

But despite their enticing pledges to keep bacteria at bay, some of these products may actually be doing us more harm than good. Many antibacterial hand and body soaps, for instance, contain a chemical called triclosan, which poses serious risks to our health and the environment. What's more, research shows that using antibacterial soaps are no more effective than using regular soap and water. "We call it 'stupid uses of toxic chemicals,' " says Mae Wu, a senior attorney in NRDC's Health program. "There's no reason to do it, and you could be hurting yourself and your family in the process."

The story of triclosan goes back to 1978, when the Food and Drug Administration first proposed a regulation that would have prohibited its use in antibacterial soaps. Fast-forward nearly 40 years: The FDA still hasn't finalized that rule. In the meantime, the market for antibacterial products has ballooned into a $1 billion-a-year industry, and triclosan has made its way into the bodies of 75 percent of the U.S. population. Tests have found the chemical in blood, urine, and breast milk.

The dangers of triclosan (and a related antibacterial chemical, triclocarban) are many. For starters, it's an endocrine disruptor, meaning it interferes with important hormone functions, which can directly affect the brain in addition to our immune and reproductive systems. Specifically, the chemical disturbs thyroid, testosterone, and estrogen regulation, which can create a host of issues including early puberty, poor sperm quality, infertility, obesity, and cancer. Studies have also shown it can lead to impaired learning and memory, exacerbate allergies, and weaken muscle function. The impacts of prolonged exposure during fetal development, infancy, and childhood can be particularly severe, resulting in permanent damage.

Overwhelmed yet? There's more. Studies have shown that the overuse of antimicrobial chemicals like triclosan might also be contributing to antibiotic resistance in bacteria, a major public health concern. At least two million people in the United States fall sick—and about 23,000 die—from antibiotic-resistant infections every year.

While all of this might be convincing enough to stop you from ever buying triclosan-containing soap again, other people will still use these products and wash them down the drain, after which they will enter our waterways and be transported far and wide. The triclosan gets into our sewage system, into our solid waste and fertilizer, and into our food. Researchers have found it in animals, too. "It's not just washing your hands and—end of story—that's your only exposure," says Wu. "Once it gets into our environment, it stays there for a long time. It has this pervasive impact."

Indeed, the only way to stop the spread of toxic triclosan is to take it off the market. And after four decades, it looks as though that might finally happen. In response to a 2010 NRDC lawsuit, the FDA agreed in November 2013 to issue that long-awaited rule on triclosan. The following month, the agency followed through with a proposal stating that not enough is understood about the health impacts of triclosan to deem it safe, and that evidence shows washing hands with regular soap is just as effective as using the antibacterial stuff. The FDA called on manufacturers of products using triclosan to prove otherwise and set September 2016 as the deadline. After that date, products containing triclosan may, at long last, be taken off the market.

But we're not home free yet. Triclosan will still be permitted in products like Colgate Total toothpaste, due to the company's successful—and expensive—1997 effort to work around the regular process to get FDA approval. (NRDC filed a lawsuit in 2014 to obtain information from the FDA about that process.) While the toothpaste might be effective, and even recommended, for very extreme cases of gingivitis, it's arguably more dangerous than hand soap because of the mouth's greater ability to absorb toxins. In fact, a study showed that people who brushed their teeth with Colgate Total had more than five times as much triclosan in their urine than people who didn't.

Meanwhile, some marketing-savvy companies, understanding the mounting public concern over triclosan, have preempted the FDA by removing the chemical ahead of the rule's finalization. There's just one problem: They've replaced it with another toxic chemical called benzalkonium chloride.

Nevertheless, the long-awaited triclosan rule is a major step forward in stemming our overuse of chemicals. Until this and other toxins come off our shelves, we'd be wise to follow Wu's advice: "Just use regular soap and water."

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