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Antimicrobial Soaps: A Washout

By on September 8th, 2011 Categories: Uncategorized

We get the message everywhere: airports, malls, public restrooms, doctors’ offices, kitchens, and other public spaces. Wash your hands with soap and water to avoid spreading germs and getting sick. It’s good advice and I make sure to follow it.

But do you know exactly what’s in your hand soap? It’s a good bet that most of the soap and hand sanitizers you use have an antimicrobial agent in them, usually a chemical called triclosan. Most liquid hand soaps labeled “antibacterial” have about 0.1% to 0.45% triclosan by weight/volume. Triclocarban is a similar chemical that is used in bar soaps labeled “antibacterial.”

Antibacterial soaps seem like a good idea. Every day I see people sneeze and wipe their noses and then immediately shake my hand. I want a soap that will get rid of any germs that I might have come into contact with. But research shows that washing your hands with plain soap and water kills just as many bacteria as soaps with added antibacterial ingredients. (Gel hand sanitizers are made with alcohol as a cleaning agent — they’re not soaps.)

No proven benefits: Over the last 10 years, many regulatory groups, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the American Medical Association, have concluded that hand soaps with added antimicrobial agents such as triclosan don’t offer any benefits over soaps without these antimicrobial agents.

Some serious concerns: There are also concerns that triclosan may be harming both people and the environment. Because the chemical is similar to some antibiotics, a number of researchers believe that it’s contributing to antibiotic resistance in people. (Antibiotic resistance is when bacteria stop responding to a product that kills them. So even though you take an antibiotic to get rid of an infection caused by bacteria, it doesn’t help.) Scientists at the National Toxicology Program are doing research to figure out if exposure to triclosan is a risk for developing cancer. We know that sunlight can degrade triclosan into a form of dioxin, a family of toxic chemicals that may increase the risk of cancer in people. There’s also research that shows that triclosan may be a hormone disruptor. Hormone disruptors can affect how estrogen and other hormones act in the bodyand mess up the body’s normal hormonal balance. And because estrogen can stimulate the growth of breast cells as well as hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer, many women choose to limit their exposure to hormonally active chemicals.

Triclosan also is one of the most common pollutants in water and it’s one of the 10 highest priority pollutants for regulation and treatment.

Avoid a soap opera: Using hand washing techniques recommended by the Centers for Disease Control with plain soap and water helps prevent the spread of germs and is easier on the environment. Skip over hand soaps labeled “antimicrobial.” Read the labels on soaps that aren’t called “antimicrobial” just to be sure and avoid those with triclosan and triclocarbon.

Marisa Weiss, M.D. is the founder, president, and chief medical officer of Breastcancer.org, the world's most trafficked online resource for medically reviewed breast health and breast cancer information, reaching over 14 million visitors per year. A breast cancer oncologist with over twenty years of active practice in the Philadelphia region, Dr. Weiss is regarded as a visionary advocate for her innovative and steadfast approach to informing, empowering, and treating patients with breast cancer.

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