Your mission, if you choose to accept, is to rid your home of the chemical triclosan and just use regular old soap to avoid the dangers of antibacterial soap.
This topic is the first I ever wrote about here at Kitchen Stewardship, and one rather dear to my heart in a strange, fixated way.
Only I would admit to a love affair with soap. 😉
My Relationship with Soap
I’m passionate about hand soap. Most of my closest friends don’t even know this about me, but it’s been a part of my life for a long time. (My husband is aware of this relationship, by the way. 😉 )
After conducting my own research in college (see below), I became convinced that antibacterial soaps are nothing more than a marketing technique created to exploit consumers’ fears about cleanliness and our general germaphobia. They don’t do anything beneficial, and their naughty side effects are about to alarm you, if I do my job properly.
Since college, I’ve gradually changed the way my family purchases and uses hand soap and other cleaners. The more I learn, the more I filter out, and over time I’ve switched to buying natural and organic options for nearly all my family’s body care products.
The easiest decision to switch concerned antibacterial soaps and their treacherous ingredient, triclosan.
The Soap Research Project
My degree is not in science – not by a long shot – but I’m definitely a science-minded geek, which is why I much preferred teaching elementary school so I could dabble in all subjects in spite of my English degree. I was blessed to take an incredible course teaching teachers basic science and all the skills necessary to “be scientists,” and my independent research project fueled the fire of my soapy passion.
I was curious about all the “antibacterial” hype and whether or not antibacterial soap actually performed any better than its traditional counterpart. Who else would get geeked about this project?
- designing an experiment to test the effectiveness of various soaps
- purchasing antibacterial and standard versions of bar and liquid soaps
- making petri dish gel (seriously cool stuff!!)
- researching how triclosan works
The Science of Washing Your Hands
First, let’s explore what happens when you wash your hands.
Let’s start with water: water has a cohesive property. It likes to “stick” to itself. This explains why water forms droplets, why those water strider insects can walk on water and why water creates a meniscus (the curved shape of the top of the water when you look at it from the side, as if in a measuring glass).
Water also has an adhesive property: it will “stick” to other objects. Just drip water on a vertical surface, like your shower wall, and you’ll see this in action. Droplets stay together as droplets (cohesion), and the water stays on the wall (adhesion).
Water will naturally adhere to the dirt on your hands and wash it away.
Now enter soap: Soap’s job is to get water to increase its adhesive property. Most soap contains “surfactants“, a short word for “surface active agents” which do what they say they’ll do: act on the surface tension of the water. It does this by breaking the cohesion and thereby reducing the surface tension of the water.
We all know oil and water don’t mix. That’s because oil is made up of molecules that are hydrophobic, meaning not that they have a Psycho-style fear of (shower) water, but that they are repelled by water. Surfactants have two different ends, one of which is hydrophobic and the other is hydrophilic, which means it attracts water.
Like objects attract: the hydrophobic end of the soap attracts the hydrophobic oil molecules, while the hydrophilic end of the soap grabs the water. This allows not only your standard issue dirt to be washed away down the drain, but also your grime and oily gunk, too, with soap acting as the middle man. The one drawback is that soap also washes away your skin’s natural oils, which explains why our hands tend to get so dry after frequent handwashing.
Ultimately, we don’t necessarily care if the bad bacteria lives or dies: we just want it away from our food and our family, running down the pipes to the water treatment plant…where they will then kill the bad guys, I suppose.
The Method I Used For My Experiment:
- I touched all sorts of nasty things in my college dorm’s community bathroom, the same things every time. You know that was disgusting and germ-filled!
- I washed my hands with warm water and rubbed hard for 30 seconds and dried with the blow dryer.
- I swiped my fingers onto a clean petri dish for each test and labeled what kind of soap I used.
- I waited for bacteria, mold and fungus to grow in my dorm room. Yes, my poor roommate often references this in her “why I didn’t live with Katie senior year” monologue along with other strange and exotic science experiments I had going that semester. (She’s still my best friend, in spite of the bacteria and even the overflowing bean fiasco!)
- Tests included:
- the reference sample without washing
- washing with only water
- waterless hand sanitizer
- 2 Lever 2000 bar soaps: antibacterial and original
- Dial antibacterial liquid
- Dial antibacterial bar
- 2 Softsoap liquids: antibacterial and “moisturizing”
I realize that most people don’t wash their hands for a whole 30 seconds, but that is the recommendation for hand-washing. It’s really quite a long time when you’re counting it out for real! I should have done all the tests with a 7-second handwash, which is about what I probably accomplish on average with the life of a mommy.
This is a portion of the petri dish before washing my hands (the most disgusting section, of course): About 25% of the total dish was covered in growing things.
After washing with soap, five of the petri dishes had something growing in them. However, all five had only eight or fewer deposits, most measuring 1mm or less with the largest spot at 2.5 mm. Most of the bacteria, fungus and mold either died or went down the drain, which is all the same to me and my health.
Only Dial antibacterial soap showed no measurable growth. The worst of the six was Softsoap antibacterial liquid, but again let me reiterate that all six did a remarkable job reducing the bacterial growth on the petri dishes.
I concluded that triclosan-laced soaps are no better than their conventional counterparts at cleaning one’s hands.
Although my hypothesis was generally proven true already, I stumbled across some little nuggets that really got me thinking, including:
- How well water alone worked.
- What else was still on my hands after a good wash.
- How well waterless sanitizer worked (or didn’t work).
A good scrubbing with no soap whatsoever resulted in only twice as many spots as the worst performing soap. Yes, some of them were larger, so there were probably four times as many bacteria and other growing things, but I was very impressed that water alone could make such a dent. I maintain to this day that it is the scrubbing and the water that are the keys to good handwashing and that soap is only a lowly assistant that improves the already efficient process. Here’s the photo of water alone: This is the worst part of the dish, just as with the photo above. It simply doesn’t look that intimidating to me! What do you think?
A Good Scrubbing Will Get You…
…Soap still on your hands. I noted in my report that I continued to make soap suds with my vigorous rubbing while drying my hands under the blow dryer. This is after 10 seconds of scrubbing soap onto my hands and 20 full seconds of scrubbing soap off under running warm water.
Frustrated, I ran a test with no petri dish with a full minute of hand washing, rubbing as hard and fast as I could under water. Still, a soapy film announced itself under the blow dryer. It made me wonder how much soap we walk around with on our hands (and consequently eat, especially for the under five set in our homes).
It’s important to note here that I’m not against alcohol-based sanitizers. I think they have their place, and because the active ingredient is alcohol, not triclosan, they don’t participate in germ warfare and bacterial resistance in quite as damaging a way as antibacterial soaps.
On the other hand, sometimes I think about this picture when I rely on waterless hand sanitizer:
My skin crawls just looking at that fuzziness. This petri dish cultured after using a nickel-sized dollop of Purell instant hand sanitizer. I don’t think I ever use that much hand sanitizer after a diaper change on the go, so my hands probably aren’t even getting this clean! There was barely a difference between the “before washing” petri dish and the sanitizer version. Good thing a little dirt (and bacteria) is good for our immune systems!
To Sum It Up
Basically, my results echo other published research that proves that antibacterial soap doesn’t get your hands significantly cleaner than regular soap. Plain water and good scrubbing actually resulted in a Petri dish that was pretty doggone similar to all the others, anti-bac and regular soap included. I was pleasantly surprised.
So use soap. Use plenty of water. And rub those hands together to get the dirt and germs dislodged and ready to be washed away by the magical powers of adhesion and surfactants! “Anti-bacterial” chemicals are unnecessary, ineffective, and harmful to the overall environment we call Earth.
I tell my kids that soap, water, AND friction are on a team. Water is the most valuable player, then the rubbing, then the soap as the assistant coach. Your real goal in washing your hands is to get the germs and dirt OFF your hands and down the drain.
What is Triclosan, Anyway?
Triclosan is the chemical added to anti-bacterial soaps (or triclocarbon for bar soaps) with the aim of killing bacteria. It is non-discriminatory in that it won’t only kill the bacteria you’re mad at, but also any good bacteria you have hanging around your house (or inside your body). It is a specialized killer, however, in that its effectiveness lies in coaxing bacteria not to reproduce.
How Does Using Triclosan Cause Harm?
Because of the handful of bacteria that manage to survive their encounter with triclosan, it contributes to what is commonly known as “bacterial resistance“, which basically means that the more we fight bacteria, the more the bacteria who can survive reproduce and the stronger the bacteria pool becomes.
The bacteria who are naturally selected to continue their gene pool will result in (more and more) overall resistance to triclosan, and possibly other antibiotics, especially those that work in the same way, creating the “super-bugs” no one wants to come home with after touching a shopping cart handle.
Every time you wash your hands/dishes/etc with a soap containing triclosan, you’re sending unknown amounts of the chemical into our collective ecosystem, and bacteria becoming stronger against us, the human race.
The Biology of Antibiotic Resistance
Here is some interesting information about antibiotic resistance from SnoWhite of Finding Joy in My Kitchen.
How does our use of antibacterial soaps contribute to super-bugs?
1) Not all bacteria are genetically identical. Even though on the surface bacteria (for example, E. coli) seem identical, there is a lot of variation in the population. Some E. coli bacteria have different genes than others. Some have a gene that makes them resistant to antibiotics, some don’t.
2) The bacteria’s environment matters. When E. coli bacteria are not exposed to antibiotics, these genetic differences in their resistance to antibiotics really does not matter. In this environment, all bacteria have a similar chance of surviving and reproducing offspring (read: our normal hand soap is an equal opportunity bacteria killer). However, when E. coli are exposed to an antibiotic, say triclosan in our hand soap, the variation in the population of E. coli creates a difference.
Exposure to antibiotic (e.g., Tricolsan) Case #1: When E. coli are exposed to triclosan, those that do not have the gene for being able to tolerate triclosan will die. These bacteria will no longer be able to reproduce more bacteria.
Exposure to antibiotic (e.g., Tricolsan) Case #2: When E. coli are exposed to triclosan those that DO have the gene for antibiotic resistance will survive. These bacteria pass on their genes to their offspring and their offspring then are resistant to our antibiotic.
3) The result: A “Super Bug” Population of Bacteria. Antibiotic resistant bacteria are often termed “super bugs” because they are unable to be killed off by our antibiotics. This “super bug” population of bacteria is now resistant to triclosan, because all the bacteria that were not resistant were killed off and unable to reproduce.
In both Case #1 and Case #2 above, it is important to realize that bacteria are not learning to fight back. Just like you and I have no control over our genetic make-up, bacteria cannot change their genetic make-up in response to a change in their environment. Bacteria reproduce so quickly that those without the gene for resistance die and the non-resistant gene quickly disappears from the population and the result is what appears to be a population of bacteria that are fighting back against our antibiotics.
By cutting down on our antibacterial soap use, we can help prevent these changes in the bacterial population. When we stop using soaps with Triclosan, we are no longer just killing bacteria that can be killed by the antibiotic, we have an equal chance of killing any bacteria in the population! This helps because bacteria without the resistance gene can remain in the population and reproduce offspring so that this gene remains in the population.
Triclosan’s Other Transgressions
- Is a probable hormone disruptor
- Creates chloroform when mixed with chlorinated water. (Almost all city water is chlorinated, and washing your dishes is an ideal environment for you to inhale toxic chloroform: hot water, chlorine, and antibacterial soap containing triclosan.)
- Stays on hands up to 4 hours after washing – anyone want an appetizer that may damage your or disrupt thyroid function?
- Is not completely removed by wastewater treatment processes, so it ends up in both our lakes and drinking water. As a result, it has been found in human breastmilk, and its toxicity to aquatic life puts our lake and stream ecosystems in grave danger.
Government Agencies Have Spoken out Against Triclosan:
- AMA (American Medical Association) recommended no antibacterial soap for household use back in 2002!
- CDC (Center for Disease Control) recommends plain soap and water for handwashing.
- EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) also recommends simple soap and good old-fashioned scrubbing.
- FDA (Federal Department of Agriculture) ruled that “19 active ingredients, including triclosan and triclocarban, are not GRAS/GRAE and consumer antiseptic wash products containing these ingredients are misbranded for use in consumer antiseptic washes.”
With all those letters of the alphabet weighing in on the topic, why haven’t you heard about the AMA’s and CDC’s recommendations on ABC, CBS, or CNN? It’s not good marketing.
Before the FDA came to a conclusion, they even agreed that triclosan isn’t proven to be more effective than just soap and water.
Let’s see here: In products that babies, children and other humans may ingest or absorb through their skin, a compound is added for the sole purpose of killing bacteria, and there’s no evidence that it does what it is there for? Does anyone else notice how ridiculous that sounds?
- If triclosan was a medicine: “Take this pill, and it won’t do anything, but take it anyway.”
- If it was a babysitter: “I don’t actually watch children, but you can pay me to sit at your house for three hours.”
- If it was an educational strategy: “There’s no evidence that this helps children read, but we use it anyway.”
If it probably doesn’t do anything, why bother with it? I’m reaffirmed in my decision to get the triclosan out of my house and keep it out.
Something to Think About…
- Effectiveness: Triclosan must be left on a surface for 2 minutes in order to work properly. Who washes their hands that long? It’s killing bacteria everywhere but our hands instead.
- Limitations: Most diseases that we’re worried about catching are viral, anyway, and triclosan doesn’t touch viruses.
- Side Effects: Even the bacteria that we’re afraid of (E. coli is one example) are only getting stronger because of our overuse of triclosan.
Take Action: Get the Antibacterials Out
72% of the soap purchased for household use is antibacterial. Gaaaaah! Let’s get that number down closer to zero, which is how many households need antibacterial soap.
Level One, Baby Step: Increase your consciousness about where triclosan and bleach are hiding.
Take a walk around your house, or just read a bottle or two as you brush your teeth or do dishes. Look for “triclosan” on your household products (aka triclocarbon in bar soaps and microban in products). You’ll find it in almost every soap or commercial cleaner that claims to be “antibacterial”, unless you already have some natural soaps in your house.
You’ll also find it in some sneaky places, like toothpaste, antiperspirant, mouthwash, some waterless hand sanitizers, shoe inserts, dishtowels and washcloths, sponges, shower curtains, and cutting boards.
Understanding how pervasive these chemicals are is the first step to eradicating them from your house.
Level Two, Making Strides: Commit to finding product alternatives without antibacterials and avoid buying any more products with the chemical.
I have a pretty extensive list of possible triclosan hiding spots and easy alternatives here. For handsoap, you can simply buy regular soap, often labeled “moisturizing” or some such name so they don’t look less important than the bottles touting the “antibacterial” label. *raspberries!* Be more frugal by using a foaming pump and even more green by just using a few Tablespoons of castille soap in your pump (directions to fill the pumps here).
Once you know where the anti-bacterials are, you can start to replace them one by one with safer alternatives.
Level Three, Leap of Faith: Get rid of all bleach and triclosan by using natural cleaners or making your own.
Take it one step at a time, and decide for yourself whether it’s wise to just use up what you have first and slowly switch over to natural products or jump in with both feet and Freecycle your conventional cleaners. Keep in mind, the CDC has admitted that there are natural alternatives that are just as effective as bleach.
Find safe products for personal health at EWG’s Skin Deep database.
Disclosure: There may be affiliate links in this post. See my full disclosure statement here.