Antibacterial Soaps: The rise in talk about keeping our hands clean has spiked dramatically this year. People want to stay healthy, but one of the suggestions often recommended actually has the opposite effect: antibacterial soaps.
This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Charles Penick, MD
What is Antibacterial Soap?
Antibacterial soap (also known as antiseptic or antimicrobial soaps) contains chemical ingredients that are sold under the assumption that they have more bacteria-killing power than plain soap and water alone.
The most common antibacterial agent included in these soaps is triclosan. This ingredient has come under fire in recent years due to its harmful impact on the health of humans and of the planet.1 So much so that, in fact, in 2017, triclosan and 18 other antiseptic ingredients were banned by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in antibacterial products sold to consumers, including liquid, foam and gel hand soaps, bar soaps, and body washes.2
1. Antibacterial Soaps Don’t Work Better Than Regular Soap
Although washing with soap is proven to be much more beneficial than using nothing or rinsing with water alone, studies suggest that using antibacterial soaps provides no added benefit in bacterial reduction or instances of illness.3,4
Studies have explored both the immediate result of killing bacteria on surfaces and have examined the instances of illness, neither of which was reduced by the introduction of antibacterial soaps.
2. Artificial Antibacterial Agents are Highly Toxic
The problem with antibacterial products is more than skin-deep. Not only do they impact the skin and outer layer of the body, but also the internal. One study shows that triclosan was detected in the urine of 75% of their sample group.5 Various studies highlight these skin-penetrating artificial antibacterial agents’ toxic nature, including microbiome and endocrine disruption.6,7
Endocrine disruption interferes with the natural flow of hormones in the body and can impair thyroid function. Hormones influence every bodily process, including hunger, sleep, reproduction, libido, blood glucose, and blood pressure. As a result, various illnesses and conditions can arise, including infertility, obesity, cancer, early puberty, and early menopause.8,9
Animal studies highlight the hormone-mimicking behavior of antibacterial agents like triclosan that bind to receptor sites and can cause hormonal imbalances and all their cascading side effects and symptoms.6,10
3. Antibacterial Agents Kill the Good Bacteria Too
The microbiome is the genetic material that includes all the microbes that live inside and outside the human body. This includes bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and viruses; the human body is actually made up of more bacterial cells than human cells!
Keeping a balance between good and bad is essential for overall human health because the microbiome plays an integral role in regulating the immune system and regulating hormonal health, inflammation, and an array of functions from mood to hunger and more.11
Antibacterial agents were glorified during the period that revered ‘germ theory,’ the outdated concept that microorganisms’ invasion of the body causes certain diseases. By killing them, illness is eradicated. This increased the popularity of various antibacterial products, including soaps and antibiotic pharmaceutical drugs.
New science gave way to new theories, namely the ‘hygiene hypothesis,’ highlighting the benefits of good bacteria and how we essentially need to be introduced to bacteria to develop a stronger, more robust immune system.12,13
One big problem with antibacterial products is that they generally do not distinguish between good and bad bacteria. Instead of acting like sniper rifles killing off only the bad, they hit your biome like an atomic bomb. In doing so, they kill the good bacteria too, which leaves your immune system very vulnerable and more susceptible to illness in the future, as well as various illnesses and unfavorable symptoms (like poor digestion, food intolerances, skin irritation, gut permeability, mood swings, bloating, weight gain, brain fog, and more). 14,15
4. Antibacterial Agents Promote Drug Resistance Bacteria
Antibacterial products can cultivate drug-resistant bacteria by pushing the bad bacteria to become more resilient as a means of self-preservation. By bombing the microbiome with these antibacterial agents, bad bacteria can learn how to adapt and morph or come back even stronger than before, to the point of no longer responding to even powerful and high doses of antibacterial agents.16
The problem is compounded because antibacterial products kill off the good bacteria, which act as soldiers for your immune system. Without the good guys to fight off the bad ones, and by essentially providing a training ground to become highly resilient, bad bacteria can proliferate without interference and make you really sick.17
5. Antibacterial Soaps May Promote Health Conditions
The studies that highlight the health consequences of antibacterial agents keep piling in. One such study highlights the role of antibacterial soaps in impairing muscle function in humans and animals.18
Another study suggests that antibacterial agents’ prolonged use can promote allergies in children, including hay fever and peanut allergies. [19, 20] This is in line with the ‘hygiene hypothesis’ that requires exposure to bacteria to bolster the immune system over time.
6. Antibacterial Soaps are Harmful to the Environment
As above, so below: the artificial ingredients that make up antibacterial soaps harm the planet and our bodies alike. When it comes to environmental degradation, one of the key ways antibacterial soap harms is by introducing these chemicals into our waterways. By making their way into the water cycle, antibacterial agents harm living organisms like algae, which produce a large amount of the world’s oxygen. They interfere with living ecosystems, which has a ripple effect on the world because all living things keep the rest of the system alive.
Not All Soap is Created Equal
Now that we’ve addressed the problems with antibacterial soaps, we must quickly highlight some of the equally toxic ingredients found in ‘regular soap.’ Although regular soaps found in supermarkets, pharmacies, and public toilets across the country may not be antibacterial, they are often still loaded with nasty endocrine-disrupting ingredients.
Some of the main non-antibacterial and yet still harmful ingredients include:
- Fragrances (which are often artificial and can still be toxic even if labeled as natural fragrances)
- Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)
- Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)
- Cocamidopropyl betaine
The solution is sourcing a high-quality organic soap like a Castille-based soap, ideally with no added fragrances or one that used pure essential oils for scent.
Although antibacterial agents are commonly recommended as a higher-effective solution to fighting off bacteria and its associated illnesses, the science says otherwise. Found in hand cleaning products, including liquid, foam, and gel hand soaps, bar soaps, and body washes, these antibacterial products actually have no greater efficacy, and yet come with a host of unfavorable side-effects.
Chronic use can lead to various health issues, including a suppressed immune system, higher incidences of allergies, muscle impairment, and endocrine disruption. The ingredients are also harmful to the environment! The solution is clear: ditch the antibacterial soap in favor of old-fashioned non-toxic soap and warm water.
- Commissioner, Office of the. “FDA Issues Final Rule on Safety and Effectiveness of Antibacterial Soaps.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA, www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/fda-issues-final-rule-safety-and-effectiveness-antibacterial-soaps.
- “Safety and Effectiveness of Consumer Antiseptics; Topical Antimicrobial Drug Products for Over-the-Counter Human Use.” Federal Register, 6 Sept. 2016, www.federalregister.gov/documents/2016/09/06/2016-21337/safety-and-effectiveness-of-consumer-antiseptics-topical-antimicrobial-drug-products-for.
- Burton, Maxine et al. “The Effect of Handwashing with Water or Soap on Bacterial Contamination of Hands.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 8.1 (2011): 97–104. Crossref. Web.
- Kim, S. A., et al. “Bactericidal Effects of Triclosan in Soap Bothin Vitroandin Vivo.” Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, 2015, doi:10.1093/jac/dkv275.
- Calafat, Antonia M et al. “Urinary concentrations of triclosan in the U.S. population: 2003-2004.” Environmental health perspectives vol. 116,3 (2008): 303-7. doi:10.1289/ehp.10768
- Veldhoen, Nik, et al. “The Bactericidal Agent Triclosan Modulates Thyroid Hormone-Associated Gene Expression and Disrupts Postembryonic Anuran Development.” Aquatic Toxicology, vol. 80, no. 3, 2006, pp. 217–227., doi:10.1016/j.aquatox.2006.08.010.
- Aly, Salah Mesalhy. “Risk of antimicrobial misuse.” International journal of health sciences vol. 7,1 (2013): V-VII. doi:10.12816/0006014
- Crews, David, and John A. Mclachlan. “Epigenetics, Evolution, Endocrine Disruption, Health, and Disease.” Endocrinology, vol. 147, no. 6, 2006, doi:10.1210/en.2005-1122.
- Darbre, Philippa D. Endocrine Disruption, and Human Health. Elsevier AP, 2015.
- Zorrilla, Leah M., et al. “The Effects of Triclosan on Puberty and Thyroid Hormones in Male Wistar Rats.” Toxicological Sciences, vol. 107, no. 1, 2008, pp. 56–64., doi:10.1093/toxsci/kfn225.
- Belkaid, Yasmine, and Timothy W Hand. “Role of the microbiota in immunity and inflammation.” Cell vol. 157,1 (2014): 121-41. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2014.03.011
- Stiemsma, Leah T et al. “The hygiene hypothesis: current perspectives and future therapies.” ImmunoTargets and therapy, vol. 4 143-57. 27 Jul. 2015, doi:10.2147/ITT.S61528
- Scudellari, Megan. “News Feature: Cleaning up the hygiene hypothesis.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America vol. 114,7 (2017): 1433-1436. doi:10.1073/pnas.1700688114
- Quigley, Eamonn M M. “Gut bacteria in health and disease.” Gastroenterology & hepatology, vol. 9,9 (2013): 560-9.
- Brown, Kirsty et al. “Diet-induced dysbiosis of the intestinal microbiota and the effects on immunity and disease.” Nutrients vol. 4,8 (2012): 1095-119. doi:10.3390/nu4081095
- Commissioner, Office of the. “Antibacterial Soap? You Can Skip It, Use Plain Soap and Water.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA, www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/antibacterial-soap-you-can-skip-it-use-plain-soap-and-water.
- Andersson, Dan I. “Persistence of Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria.” Current Opinion in Microbiology, vol. 6, no. 5, 2003, pp. 452–456., doi:10.1016/j.mib.2003.09.001.
- Cherednichenko, G., et al. “Triclosan Impairs Excitation-Contraction Coupling and Ca2 Dynamics in Striated Muscle.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 109, no. 35, 2012, pp. 14158–14163., doi:10.1073/pnas.1211314109.
- Clayton, Erin M Rees et al. “The impact of bisphenol A and triclosan on immune parameters in the U.S. population, NHANES 2003-2006.” Environmental health perspectives vol. 119,3 (2011): 390-6. doi:10.1289/ehp.1002883
- Sicherer, Scott H., and Donald Y.m. Leung. “Advances in Allergic Skin Disease, Anaphylaxis, and Hypersensitivity Reactions to Foods, Drugs, and Insects in 2012.” Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, vol. 131, no. 1, 2013, pp. 55–66., doi:10.1016/j.jaci.2012.11.007.
- Adolfsson-Erici, Margaretha, et al. “Triclosan, a Commonly Used Bactericide Found in Human Milk and in the Aquatic Environment in Sweden.” Chemosphere, vol. 46, no. 9-10, 2002, pp. 1485–1489., doi:10.1016/s0045-6535(01)00255-7.
Medical Disclaimer: This article is based on the opinions of The Cell Health team. The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified healthcare professional and is not intended as medical advice. It is intended to share knowledge and information from the research and experience of the Cell Health team. This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Charles Penick, MD, for the accuracy of the information provided. Still, we encourage you to make your own healthcare decisions based on your research and in partnership with a qualified healthcare professional.