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Harmful Handwashing: The Dangers of Antibacterial Soaps

Harmful Handwashing: The Dangers of Antibacterial Soaps

Written by Beth Corcoran, Contributing Writer

I love this time of year, when the leaves start to change colors and the air turns crisp at night. But as I enjoy the lovely colors and smells of this season, a part of me sighs deeply as I realize we are once again entering the time of year when it seems someone is always sick in my house.

This is also the time that TV commercials start to heavily push the use of hand sanitizers and soaps. But the question is not a matter of which brand we should choose. The question is whether or not these items are truly necessary in the fight against germs.

So let’s dive right in and take a look at what actually happens when you clean your hands with antibacterial soap.

Why Antibacterial Soap Came to Be

Soaps containing antibacterial chemicals got their start in hospitals and clinics. Those are both places where a sterile environment is necessary and much appreciated. It has only been in the recent years that these soaps have been marketed and sold to the household consumer.

My dad is a surgeon, and when I was growing up, he would always come home smelling heavily of the antibacterial soaps that they use when they scrub in for surgery. So when my family was able to buy soaps at the store that smelled like hospital, I personally thought it was pretty neat because I, too, could smell like I had just scrubbed in for surgery—which was a dream of mine as a child.

Of course, antibacterial soaps have been desirable for other reasons than just making you smell like a hospital. Consumers buy the products because they claim to be effective in killing up to 99.9% of the bacteria on your hands. That is an attractive claim when you have lots of kids at home and illness is sweeping through your town.

Although there appears to be a benefit to buying antibacterial products, research is starting to show that these soaps may actually cause more harm than good.

Potential Harm From Using Antibacterial Products

  • The antibacterial chemicals are essentially antibiotics. They are effective in killing bacteria, but do not kill viruses, which are the cause of colds and the flu.
  • The most susceptible bacteria strains are killed when washing your hands, leaving behind the stronger bacteria. This can lead to strains of bacteria resistant to antibiotics, such as the MRSA that we hear so much about in the news.
  • Research has shown that exposure to bacteria can actually be good because it strengthens your immune system. People—especially children—who live in a particularly sterile environment are more prone to infections when they do have exposure to germs.
  • According to the CDC, researchers are finding a link between allergies and the use of antibacterial soaps. Again, the soaps reduce the need for the immune system to be strengthened, which can cause allergy problems as well.
Harmful Handwashing: The Dangers of Antibacterial Soaps
Photo credit Arlington County

Concerns About Triclosan

On top of the concerns already mentioned, there are increasing concerns about triclosan, which is the antibacterial ingredient in most commercial hand soaps and cleansers. Here are a few:

  • When mixed with chlorinated water (plain tap water), triclosan and the chlorine form chloroform gas. This is especially dangerous if you are using an antibacterial product for bathing.
  • Triclosan has been shown to cause endocrine disruption, which essentially means that it can disrupt hormones. The triclosan can accumulate in the fat in your body and cause hormonal problems. It has also been shown to damage liver function.
  • Triclosan has been linked to eczema, asthma and allergic reactions.

As you can see, antibacterial soaps (and cleaners, too!) can potentially cause much more harm than good. Of course, I am not talking about the use of it in hospitals or use by people with special health concerns that require its use. But for everyday use, antibacterial soaps—especially with triclosan—can be a very unhealthy option.

So is there any hope for cold and flu season? What can we do with all those little germy hands that come home from playing outside?

The good news is that scientists show that use of good, old fashioned, regular soap is just as effective in washing bacteria and viruses off of our hands as antibacterial soap. All you have to do is lather up and scrub well. The germ fighting power comes from scrubbing thoroughly and effectively rather than from any chemical additives. This way you can get rid of most of the germs without knowingly exposing yourself to potentially harmful chemicals.

Here’s to happy handwashing this winter!!

Do you use antibacterial soap in your home? Why or why not?

Photo credit 96dpi

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  1. We don’t use antibacterial soap or hand sanitzers on a regular basis. I don’t buy them for my home, but when we are out we use what is available. I am a firm believer that exposure to every day germs helps to build up a resistance and a stronger immune system.

    There are 5 of us. My husband, myself, and our boys (19,12,9) and we aren’t sick that often. We do get the occassional bug, but it doesn’t seem to last as long as other people and we don’t get sick as often. It works for us. 🙂

  2. I had my mother go out and buy some Dial to scrub her skin before surgery. She, of course, has antibacterial soap throughout her house (unfortunately). No changing her on that front, because even the Bath and Body Works soap has triclosan in it.

    We have had good luck with diluting Dr. Bronner’s soap in a 1 to 2 ratio with water and placing it in foaming soap dispensers. That way, we still get fun soap that’s safe!

  3. Nope, we don’t use it for the same reasons. We use only natural bar soap (cheaper than liquid in my experience). When I have to wash my hands at other’s houses I usually get rashes and headaches and sometimes worse reactions, same with my daughter.

  4. I agree. We use regular old soap at home. Something else about them is that since they kill good bacteria, they can leave you more vulnerable to yeast infections and as a breastfeeding momma, that makes me nervous. One episode of thrush/yeast diaper rash was more than enough!

    Right now though my mom has cancer so when we are at her house or visiting her in the hospital, I have to use lots of antibacterial soap and hand sanitizer practically every ten minutes. As you said, in this case it is warranted, so I don’t mind, but I do make sure to use a probiotic to help.

  5. We are living with my mom right now, so not everything is my choice. But in our bathroom, I’ve got a foam soap dispenser that has a liquid castile soap, watered down. Makes a lovely foam (and smell, it’s lavender!). My mom likes the ‘moisturizing’ soaps, and I don’t think the one she has is anti-bacterial, so plus there. 🙂

    My mom does use a anti-bacterial kitchen cleaner when doing her counters. I hate it. I refuse to use it. And since I cook and clean the most, it doesn’t get used most.

    I think for not having complete control over the products used in the house, we are doing pretty good.

  6. I keep one bottle by the kitchen sink for washing after handling raw meat, but other than that we stick with plain old soap.

    I have to figure that 100 years ago people handled raw chicken and used regular soap and were just fine (well…most of the time…)

  7. I use it sometimes–especially when I’m out and about shopping. I carry hand sanitizer in my car to use before stopping to eat, too. At home I use it in the kitchen while cooking and handling raw meat, etc. I feel better knowing I’m not ingesting somebody’s germs. I had never thought of the fact that my hands could still be harboring a virus—such as flu, cold, etc., even after using antibacterial soap. Seems that just good ol’ soap would be just as good, then.

    1. @Rebekah,
      It depends. Some sanitizer has triclosan in it (Bath and Body Works is one), but many are just alcohol based, which has a totally different profile and method of attack on germs. I wrote more about that here: Are Hand Sanitizers Safe?, if you’re interested.
      🙂 Katie

  8. We usually use Dr. Bronner’s, diluted, in a foaming pump here at home. I do carry hand sanitizer, preferably organic (like EO) for emergencies when we’re out.

  9. Thank you!!! Thank you for this post. I was just in the store buying soap and looking at the difference between regular soap and antibacterial. I bought the antibactirial because I thought it would, well, kill bacteria. Something in me was questioning my choice, but I was afraid that plain soap wouldn’t be good enough. So glad you wrote this and now I know that I can kill bacteria with just plain soap. And now I know not to buy products with Triclosan.

  10. I have to wash my hands constantly due to having little ones at home (preparing their food, restroom trips, diaper changes etc.) and then constantly when at work (part time physical therapist). For years, I would dread this season, as even the most recommended remedies for my dry, cracked, dermatitis hands only took the edge off. The soap we use at work is anti-bacterial and harsh to say the least. Now that we are using watered down castile at home, my hands have survived and no longer have the dermatitis. Research is now showing that the dry cracked hands caused by the more drying soaps is also creating a place to harbor more of the dreaded bacteria and virus that we were hoping to kill with our anti-bacterial soaps. The recommendations that they provide at work are changing each year to recognize slowly what our anti-bacterial soaps are doing. I doubt that they will disappear from medical facilities but for all of the reasons stated above, we do not use antibacterial soaps or cleaning products in our home except on the rarest of occasions.

  11. I also look for triclosan (my enemy!) in other products, like deodorant, toothpaste, even cutting boards (called microban in solid objects). It’s a big deal, the overuse of antibacterial products. You did a great job breaking down the issue.
    🙂 Katie

  12. I have never used anything antibacterial, neither for cleaning nor for personal hygiene. I think it harms your immune system. Recently there has been rather strong evidence that childen who grow up on a farm (with cows) are much less likely to develop allergies. Personally, I think that Americans tend to be a little hysteric about hygiene, with all that sanitizing and cleaning and laundering everything after wearing it only once.

  13. I try to avoid using antibacterial products as it is. Dr. Bronner’s soaps have worked well for us all this time.

  14. I agree 100% with this. We haven’t used antibacterial soap in years. Good old soap and water do the trick. I had read a few years ago that families with lots of children usually have healthier children because they get outside more in the dirt and sun. Nowadays kids stay in the house for the most part. It’s good to get in the dirt and to have a little bacteria left on our hands. I don’t play in the dirt but I do garden and work in my flowers, which they said is also good.

  15. You did a good job explaining this. We also avoid antibacteria soaps and I’m needing to rethink liquid soaps as well because of the perfumes. It’s just that bar soaps are so messy!

    Annie Kate

  16. I never purposely bought antibacterial soap, but now I have to purposely look at each soap that comes into my house – most have the triclosan, in order NOT to have it. Great post!

  17. Thank you for that research on triclosan! We use a natural liquid soap, but I will occasionally add a few drops of tea tree oil during cold/ flu season for its natural antibiotic properties.

  18. So glad you wrote about this. My husband is a microbiologist and is so against antibacterial products in general use! I make as much of our soap as possible, the good old fashioned way with lye and fat and water and refuse to buy anything that is antibacterial. I didn’t know about triclosan, though. It is now on my avoid list. 🙂

  19. We typically use Dr. Bronner’s or another type of castile soap at home. I consider this to be very safe. I use Burt’s Bees if I need something kid friendly (castile soap is NOT tear free, as we learned through a couple unfortunate experiences…). Then again I often don’t use any soap on my kids at all!

    We will use what we have to when we are away from home. But honestly I would rather just NOT wash my hands in most cases than use that poison! And we don’t get sick much either. I figure the more exposure we get to minor germs, the better. And I do things to boost our immune systems, like extra vitamin C, elderberry, etc. so that I don’t have to worry too much. So far it’s working.

    And those sanitizers…I read a recent study that showed they are not effective at all. I think on Natural News? I would really just avoid them! Wash your hands with safe soap when you can (why not carry a tiny soap bottle in your purse instead of a hand sanitizer?) and otherwise, eat well, get some sun (or cod liver oil), elderberry, etc. and don’t worry about it. I don’t trust poison ever.

    1. @Kate @ Modern Alternative Mama, When out in public, I initially just used whatever soap was around, but then the more I learned, I went to just washing our hands with water only. Last year with the flu outbreaks, I didn’t feel good about that decision (I didn’t want the antibacterial soap, but I did want to wash our hands with soap still).
      I found a product called CleanWell, an all-natural hand sanitizer, with no alcohol, Triclosan, etc. but using essential oils instead. I love it and keep a bit spray bottle in my diaper bag at all times!

      1. This is super-helpful. I’m just finishing up getting items for my diaper bag for baby-to-be, and was wondering about hand sanitizer. Thanks for this reply post!

    2. Dr. Bronner’s has a mild, unscented baby version now. The label is light blue. I use it because I need unscented soap. I even use it in the shower, and I know plenty of people who use the brand on their dishes.

  20. We keep hand sanitizer in my purse for when we use public restrooms and for right after handshaking at church (too many people touching, etc.) Two of my children have mild immune system issues so we are very careful out in public. At home we use basic plain soap and i use simple cleaners (vinegar, baking soda, etc). I don’t buy antibacterial stuff when I can avoid it. Its a shame that even the dish liquid is coming more and more in antibacterial forms. I didn’t know about the triclosan tho so thankyou for the heads up on that!

  21. try some fresh lemon!!!! I cut it in half, squezze some in my water and then use the rest to rub on our hands before we eat!!

  22. I cut out antibacterial soaps many years ago. There’s been no change in us getting sick more often. We rarely get sick. I think we average a stomach bug once every 4 years or so, which is pretty good with 3 young children. We’ve never had the flu and if we get a cold, it goes away pretty quickly.

    I think we’re doing pretty good relying on plain old soap and water. 😉

  23. I have had one antibacterial soap by the kitchen sink, assuming that after touching raw meat, I should use it. Now I won’t! We use by all sinks this soap:
    They offer outstanding, all-natural products that are also beautiful and inexpensive. I used to have severe eczema, but since using their soap for over a year, my eczema hasn’t flared up once. That is simply wonderful to me! You had some great information in this post. Thanks so much!

  24. This is a very important piece of information to pass on, but I would like to add something to the conversation. I was surprised when I visited my husband at work one day while he was a medical technician in the Air Force. I went to wash my hands at a sink used by the physicians and discovered there was nothing but cold water. When I mentioned it to my husband’s assigned physician he nodded and asked if I knew how soap and water worked. He then explained that hand washing as a preventative to illness is effective but not for the reasons typically believed by the general public. The purpose of soap is to remove germs (both viral and bacterial) not to kill them. The suds lift the germs from our skin and are washed off by the water. He then explained that hot water wasn’t necessary because it’s purpose is to wash away, not destroy. He did say textiles should be washed in warm or hot water to aid the soap in working it’s way through the fiber. I have kept this in mind ever since he shared this and we use plain bar soap for washing up in our home.

  25. We haven’t used antibacterial soap (or the instant stuff) for several years. While in the hospital having my second child, I caught C-dif, a hospital super-bug. The rest of my family got it from me. It was HORrible, but during the infection I found out that triclosan will actually open up the C-dif spores, which lay dormant in a person’s body for two years after infection! Now I’m the crazy mom at the petting zoo who won’t *let* her kids use hand sanitizer!

  26. I have an antibacterial home made soap which I use with my family. I think its good to know how to make soap at home so we can avoid those soaps have bad chemicals which make our skin rough. I also recommend to use hand sanitizers than soap before eating.

  27. We don’t like foaming soap, and we have been using Dr. Bronner’s or other Castile soaps in our regular dispensers. The person leak is, it’s such a thin liquid soap to begin with that it shoots out of the container and onto the mirrors, doors, and walls. I’ve been looking for a soap that is low on the EWG list that won’t do that but it seems most of the lower number soaps are either bar or foaming.

  28. I’m really enjoying your blog! Thanks for such well-written and well-researched posts. I plan to link to this one in my own post scheduled for Monday afternoon…thanks!

  29. I am 17 years old and I have severe ocd and have had it since I can remember. My mum used to see me doing strange things and telling people off when they touched me, then demanding they say sorry a certain number of times. Compared to now though back then it wasn’t no where near as bad. In the last 4 years my ocd has ruined my life and my teen years. I am currently housebound because I am scared of going outside because of germs. The rare times I do go out I come home and spend 3 hours washing my body with Carex 99% antibacterial soap. It is known to be a very strong soap and its a handwash. I also scrub my body with the rough side of a bath sponge making my skin constantly dry, itchy and burny. I also wash even if I have just accidently touched something that I class as dirty in my own home even when I haven’t been out. I walk through the house sideways making sure my back, hair, arms and body doesn’t go anywhere near anything. I don’t even have to touch it I could be 30 cms away from it but I think in my mind that germs can somehow jump and get to me so then I have to wash all over again. Its a living nightmare. I also have to count a lot but I’m not going into that as I’m here to talk about the soap. Antibacterial soap is my life. In one wash I use 3 250ml bottles of carex handsoap and end up with my entire body bright red and burning. I hate it so much as it then drys out and goes incedibly itchy and uncomfortable. I try to stop washing but I just feel disgusting and coverd in germs if I don’t use that soap. I also refuse to use any other soap apart from carex soap. My mum, dad and sisters try to help me and are careful not to come near me with certain things but there are always accidents. Take the other day for example: I had just come downstairs after I had been washing for 3 hours. I walked into the room and my dad accidently put the tv remote near me… I cried so much as my skin was hurting and I didn’t want to go and wash again but I felt I had too. It gets me so depressed. I have been getting help from places for since I was 9 but its just got worde as the cbt they give me isn’t very good. I live in the UK and think that the NHS is rubbish when it comes to things like mental illness. I hope that I can get back to my job working as a waitress and back to college where I was doing an animal care course. I had to quit them two years ago because of my ocd. I think more should be said about the pros and cons of anti bacterial soap on tv too. I know I use way out of propotion but that’s because I believe that using that will get rid of all the germs on me and that using normal no anti bacterial soap won’t do anything. Thanks for this article its made me think twice and I might try to use some more sensitive gentle soap.

  30. I have just stopped using antibacterial soap. The thing is it kills good bacteria as well.
    I have had a cronic rash in the groin area for a while and it was driving me up the wall. Now it is clearing up nicely just quickly washing and rinsing fast with normal soap.
    In my opinion anti-bacterial soap should only be used by surgions.

  31. This is the second or third time I have gotten a rash,, like a burn,, on my hands while traveling. Just got back from Vegas,, my wife said I had psoriasis, but now,, putting the pieces together,, I am recovering from a chemical burn. The ONLY way this could have happened is because I washed my hands in one of the casino bathrooms with the Foamy hand soap. I have NEVER gotten this burn before except after washing my hands while traveling in a hotel or other public wash station. Last summer we went to New Orleans and the exact same happened. Must be time for me to get rich and file a claim!!!
    By the way,, soaps, bandaids, etc.that kill bacteria
    do nothing more than make the problem worse by making bacteria immune thus creating a “super” bacteria that get’s more and more super as time goes on. Bacteria aren’t stupid,, they want to survive and live! Exactly how stupid can People be?,,DUH!!!
    Like I always say to my kids,, If you can’t find any other reason for what’s going on,, Follow the Money Trail!

  32. Wash your hands always bad for your health because wash your hands make you sick and have rare deadly illness each day and night.

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