No Crest for the Antibacterial Wave
Hundreds of antibacterial products promise to keep you safe from harmful microbes. However, there's little or no data to demonstrate these products are better at protecting you. In fact, they may actually pose health risks.
We have more than 100 species of bacteria living on our skin. Many of them are naturally found in our bodies and do not cause harm. When we wash our hands or clean our house, we don't want to kill these "native" bacteria, we just want to wash them away.
Triclosan is the primary active ingredient in most antibacterial personal care and cleaning products. It's a chlorinated aromatic hydrocarbon, similar to PCB (Polychlorinated Biphenyl) and the now-banned pesticide, DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane).
Although triclosan has antibacterial and antiviral effects, some studies suggest it's not very effective. The data don't seem to support the effectiveness of triclosan for reducing infectious disease symptoms or bacteria counts on hands when used at concentrations commonly found in consumer antiseptic hand soaps. Antibacterial cleaners tend to kill weak bacteria, and favor those that are more tolerant.
A study reported in Scientific American found that triclosan-containing antibiotic soaps and wipes are no more likely to prevent gastrointestinal or respiratory illnesses, and when compared to non-antibacterial soaps, were actually associated with an increase in frequency of fevers, runny noses, and coughs in chronically sick patients.
Triclosan has other strikes against it as well. It can cause skin irritations and disrupt hormonal systems. When mixed with other substances, triclosan can produce dangerous byproducts, toxic chemicals with their own adverse health effects. Triclosan eventually ends up in lakes and streams, damaging local plant and animal species. It even shows up in strange places, such as breast milk, in women who don't use personal care products containing triclosan. Triclosan may also contribute to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics.
The Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) review of the data found that antibacterial products are no better at cleaning than plain old soap and water, and there's no evidence that triclosan provides extra health benefits. The FDA recommends an alcohol hand rub or rinse if you need an antibacterial cleaner. Furthermore, the American Medical Association's official recommendation is not to use antibacterial products in the home due to concerns of antibacterial resistance.
Environmental Working Group. "Frequently Asked Questions." Web. http://www.ewg.org/EWGFAQ
Dunn, Rob. "Scientists Discover That Antimicrobial Wipes and Soaps May Be Making You (and Society) Sick." Scientific American. Web. 5 July 2011. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=strange-but-true-antibacterial-products-may-do-more-harm-than-good
Chameides, Bill. "The Chemical Marketplace: Triclosan." Scientific American. Web. 15 June 2010.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Triclosan: What Consumers Should Know." Web. 8 December 2011.
Aiello, Allison E., Larson, Elaine L., and Levy, Stuart B. "Consumer Antibacterial Soaps: Effective or Just Risky?" Clinical Infectious Diseases 45 (2007): S137-47. Web.
American Medical Association. "2000 Annual Meeting of the American Medical Association." Web.
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