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The main ingredient in most liquid soaps lining store shelves is triclosan, a pesticide that kills bacteria. Turns out you just need to banish germs from your hands, not kill them. Studies show that antibacterial soaps aren’t more effective at preventing illness or removing germs than good old-fashioned soap and water.
In fact, antibacterial soaps may do more harm than good.
There are concerns that triclosan may contribute to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It’s also present in human bodies and breast milk, as well as in streams. The Environmental Working Group says triclosan has been linked to developmental defects, liver toxicity, and cancer in lab studies. It also may [will] affect thyroid and other hormones that are crucial to normal development.
...A quick read of the label will tell you if triclosan or triclocarban (a similar compound that’s found more commonly in bar soaps) are active ingredients. If so, move onto another product.
Antibacterial soaps that contain triclosan as the main active ingredient are no better at preventing infections than plain soaps, say University of Michigan researchers who reviewed 27 studies conducted between 1980 and 2006 to reach their conclusion.
The team also concluded that these antibacterial soaps could actually pose a health risk, because they may reduce the effectiveness of some common antibiotics, such as amoxicillin.
That’s because — unlike antibacterial soaps used in hospitals and other clinical settings — the antibacterial soaps sold to the public don’t contain high enough concentrations of triclosan to kill bacteria such as E. coli.
...I take comfort in a study I read a few years ago when I’m in the park bathroom with no soap. The study suggested that equally important to scrubbing your hands with soap is keeping them underwater for a long enough period of time. Running water on your hands for a full minute was found to be almost as effective in washing away bacteria as soap. It may not be true, but I choose to believe it when I’m in dire settings.
CDC research on a broad cross-section of the population detected triclosan in the urine of 75% of 2,517 Americans (Calafat 2007). Higher levels of triclosan were typically found in higher income participants. An earlier study spearheaded by the Mount Sinai School of Medicine found triclosan in the urine of 61% of 90 girls age 6 to 8 (Wolff 2007).
Lab studies link triclosan to cancer, developmental defects, and liver and inhalation toxicity. A secret study by Colgate scientists revealed exposure to low levels of triclosan caused liver tumors in mice (See 1996). Colgate refuses to release this study to EPA for evaluation, though it provided it to FDA in order to ensure it could add triclosan to toothpaste and other oral care products. Based on the study summary alone, and using a controversial assumption about the way this type of liver tumor forms in mice, EPA classified triclosan as “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans” (EPA 2008). This decision flows in part from EPA’s lack of regulatory authority to demand release of Colgate’s findings, a clear indication of the need for reform of the U.S. system of chemical health protections.
...The amount of triclosan in wastewater is estimated to be as much as 3 to 5 milligrams per person per day from residences alone (McAvoy 2002); in addition, substantial discharges are expected from laundries, hair salons, medical facilities, and other sites. Optimized water treatment can remove up to 95% of triclosan (Samsøe-Petersen 2003); however, EWG research confirms that some triclosan persists despite treatment and enters receiving waters (EWG/EBMUD 2007).
Studies indicate that in surface waters, triclosan can interact with sunlight and microbes to form methyl triclosan, a chemical that may bioacummulate in wildlife and humans (Adolfsson-Erici 2002; Lindstrom 2002)... Few studies have probed the toxicological effects of methyl triclosan, but a recent publication reveals that the transformation product triggers acute toxic effects in the marine bacterium Vibrio fischeri at levels significantly lower than does triclosan (Farré 2008).
Triclosan also can degrade into a form of dioxin, a class of chemicals linked to a broad range of toxicities including cancer (Lores 2005). The Canadian government limits the levels of dioxins allowed as impurities in personal care products that contain triclosan. New research shows that triclosan in tap water can react with residual chlorine from standard water disinfecting procedures to form a variety of chlorinated byproducts at low levels, including chloroform, a suspected human carcinogen (Fiss 2007).