My Relationship with Soap
I’m passionate about 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. 😉 )
My passion is to educate people about the dangers of antibacterial soaps, really. 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.
My soapy quest began with a self-study option for a science course that required me to design and conduct my own experiment. I chose to examine the effectiveness of soap. I bought bar and pump, antibacterial and regular soaps, then touched nasty places in my dormitory’s common restroom and washed my hands (for 30 seconds with warm water, of course) with each soap in turn. I made cultures, let the nasties grow, and took photos. Fascinating stuff! I wish we could all have access to Petri dishes, culture gel, and proper disposal techniques so we could do this with our kids!
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.
The solution is in the symbiosis: you need soap, water AND friction to get the job done. I tell my kids that those three 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.
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. The easiest decision concerned antibacterial soaps and their treacherous ingredient, triclosan. As much as I tried to buy only normal liquid hand soap (other than anti-bac for the kitchen only; apparently even the soap lady has trouble getting over our culture’s germaphobia, especially about raw chicken), well-meaning family members love to give Bath and Body Works fancy-smelling soaps as gifts. For a while I used them because I had them, realizing that pouring the stuff down the drain would only further the community’s water issues. Now I’ve switched over to reserving the anti-bac soaps for after I handle raw chicken and when a family member is sick (even though I know
As much as I tried to buy only normal liquid hand soap, well-meaning family members love to give Bath and Body Works fancy-smelling soaps as gifts. For a while I used them because I had them, realizing that pouring the stuff down the drain would only further the community’s water issues. Now I’ve switched over to reserving the anti-bac soaps for after I handle raw chicken and when a family member is sick (even though I know regular soap and hot water would do the job).
The Science of Washing Your Hands
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, which explains why my “washed-with-water-only” Petri dish didn’t have much growing in it: much of the bacteria, viruses and fungi – a veritable metropolis of things that make me squirm – were simply washed away with the dirt.
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.
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.
What is Triclosan?
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.
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. Bath and Body Works would be out of business…
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.
Read my post on hand sanitizers here.
Find safe products for personal health at EWG’s Skin Deep database.