"Antibacterial" Isn't Worth It

EWG Executive Director Heather White explains why you should think before you buy soap with triclosan.

Posted on | By Heather White | Comments ()

The next time you reach for some "antibacterial" hand soap, think again.

It likely contains the chemical triclosan. And so do many other products that claim to fight bacteria or odor.

Triclosan (pronounced "trick-lo-san" or "trike-lo-san") is a synthetic chemical developed over 40 years ago for surgical scrubs. Today, it shows up in about 75% of hand soaps, in more than 140 types of personal care and home products like body washes, toothpastes, cutting boards and on clothing, furniture and bedding. It is registered with the Environmental Protection Agency as a pesticide.

You may ask – what better way to protect your family from common infections? But you should beware of triclosan for three reasons:

Triclosan may interfere with thyroid hormones and the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone, critical for normal development and reproduction, according to some studies. Other lab and animal research suggests it may damage the heart muscle.

Triclosan may encourage the spread of mutated bacteria that can survive antibiotics. Already, medical authorities say antibiotic-resistant bacteria are proliferating at an alarming rate, rendering some antibiotics useless in some cases. The American Medical Association has urged people to avoid using antibacterial products in the home in order to help preserve the effectiveness of these invaluable medicines. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculates that 2 million people become infected annually and 23,000 people die from infections from antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  

Triclosan pollutes the environment – and people. It is one of the chemicals most frequently detected in American streams and rivers. In one study, the CDC reported that triclosan was found in the urine of nearly 75% of Americans who were tested. 

Why do people buy products containing triclosan? One big reason: advertising hype. The Food and Drug Administration recently declared that it has seen "no evidence" that triclosan is any more effective at preventing disease than plain soap and water. 

The FDA has not required manufacturers of triclosan-laced consumer goods to reformulate their wares – yet. But the market may soon be forced to change. In a lawsuit brought by public health and environmental groups last November, the FDA signed a settlement agreeing to make a final decision about regulating or restricting triclosan in consumer hand soaps by 2016.

In the meantime, here are EWG's key tips to avoiding triclosan:

  • Read product labels and avoid products that contain "triclosan" or a related chemical "triclocarban."
  • Avoid household products labeled "antimicrobial," "antibacterial" or "odor-fighting."
  • Wash your hands with plain soap and water.
  • Use alcohol-based hand sanitizers when you’re on the go.
  • Find products without triclosan on EWG’s Skin Deep database.

Article written by Heather White
EWG Executive Director