Health & Wellbeing

Scientists say antimicrobial soaps are harmful and don't work

Scientists say antimicrobial s...
According to a group of scientists, antimicrobial hand soaps are not only ineffective, they could be harmful to health and the environment
According to a group of scientists, antimicrobial hand soaps are not only ineffective, they could be harmful to health and the environment
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According to a group of scientists, antimicrobial hand soaps are not only ineffective, they could be harmful to health and the environment
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According to a group of scientists, antimicrobial hand soaps are not only ineffective, they could be harmful to health and the environment

If the label on your hand soap proudly boasts that it kills 99 percent of germs, it might be time to stop using it. According to a consensus statement signed by over 200 scientists and medical professionals, there's no evidence that so-called antimicrobial chemicals actually do anything to prevent illness – and worse, they might be actively harming your health and the environment.

First presented at the DIOXIN International Symposium in 2016, the Florence Statement gathered current research on two specific antimicrobial chemicals, triclosan and triclocarban, which have been widely used for decades. The document pointed out that there's insufficient evidence that these chemicals are safe to use or are even effective in the first place.

"People think antimicrobial hand soaps offer better protection against illness," says Barbara Sattler, an environmental health professor at the University of San Francisco. "But generally, antimicrobial soaps perform no better than plain soap and water."

In response, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the use of triclosan and triclocarban, as well as 17 other microbial ingredients, in over-the-counter products like soaps.

"I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," says Arlene Blum, PhD, Executive Director of Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

This could just lead to an arms race, as companies keep substituting banned additives with new ones that could be just as harmful. And the antimicrobial ban doesn't stop them being used in other personal care, building and consumer products, like toothpaste, paints, food storage containers, clothing, kitchenware and flooring.

"Added antimicrobials are marketed as beneficial in building products from countertops to doorknobs and light switches," says Bill Walsh, President of Healthy Building Network. "Antimicrobial preservatives are useful in certain products like paints, but we found claims about health benefits to be largely invalid."

Besides the obvious issue of the additives not doing what they're supposed to do, the Florence Statement cites studies suggesting that exposure to triclosan can make people more sensitive to food allergies and asthma, and negatively affect human reproduction and development. Increased use of antimicrobial products means we're not only exposing ourselves to these chemicals, but more of them are washing into the environment and affecting animals and ecosystems in similar ways.

Worse still, if they are effective at killing microbes, the chemicals could be contributing to the rise of the superbug, as bacteria continuously evolve stronger defences against our best antibiotics.

To counter all that, the Florence Statement recommends a few new rules. Triclosan, triclocarban and other antimicrobials should be avoided unless there's enough evidence that they're safe and beneficial, and safer alternatives should be considered instead. Before an antimicrobial is allowed to be used in a product, its long-term health and environmental impacts should be studied, and all products containing these chemicals should be clearly labeled.

The Florence Statement was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Source: Green Science Policy

7 comments
NicoleKing
I have been saying more-or-less this for the past twenty years. Put simply, if 99% of bugs in a population are killed, the 1% that remain are not susceptible to that which killed them. Since Nature abhors a vacuum, this 1% expands into the empty real estate left behind by the dead 99%. Now you have 100% of the bugs in a population that cannot be killed by this soap. This kind of environmental pressure leads to horrors such as MRSA or forms of TB of STDs that are untreatable.
Brian M
@NicoleKing N0 - It doesn't quite work like that (!) otherwise we would have no defence against any bug where we can't kill 100% in one go. Fortunately other mechanisms are in play that slow the spread of resistance strains. For example just reducing the population by 99% gives other natural defences a better chance to kill the remaining 1%. That's not to say evolving resistance to antibiotics is not a problem of course!
EcoLogical
Triclosan is similar in structure to DDT and therefore potentially extremely toxic. However, Lactic Acid and Ethanol are non-toxic and perfectly safe to use. Grouping all antibacterial agents together and labelling them ALL unsafe is simply irresponsible.
Bob
I agree with part of this but diseases like MRSA in hospitals are often the result of poor hygiene to begin with. After many months in the hospital visiting sick family members, I noticed many things. Soiled bedding was routinely stacked on chairs and window sills in the patient rooms. These cloth chairs were never cleaned and no doubt were reservoirs of filth and bacteria. Nurses often changed bed pans and served food wearing the same rubber gloves with no washing in between. Hospitals often try to blame visitors for spreading diseases but how could you know what soiled materials were placed in your chair before you came to visit. I got to the point of not sitting or touching anything in a hospital room when visiting nor would I touch or hand anything to the patient without washing my hands first. And of course the number one thing that hospitals do when they are not making enough profit is to lay off cleaning staff. The best doctor in the world is worthless if he kills you because didn't wash his hands.
Wolf0579
First of all, there are beneficial bacterial colonies on human skin. Second, about three quarters of the so-called "anti-bacterial" soaps on sale in the US, do NOT contain alcohol. Alcohol evaporates completely, leaving zero residue for the .01% of bacterial not killed, to become resistant to. Those companies should be shut down and HEAVILY fined. They know full well they are PROMOTING THE GROWTH OF RESISTANT BACTERIA. They don't care. They are in it for the money. The same goes for Hospitals that use those same products for cleaning. Those hospital execs who make those budget decisions should be put on trial and imprisoned for public endangerment.
NigelThompson
Yeah, Nah, its becoming quite (very) hard to avoid anti-bacterial soaps, but wherever I can I buy regular soaps. I have never trusted anything that a) (only) kills 99%, and b) kills anything on my hands, because the skin is a living breathing thing, and the chemicals on the hands will transport into my bloodstream. Nup, avoid 'em like a plague.
Aross
Is anyone surprised. Most things that end up on the market for the benefit of mankind are actually designed to make the manufacturer rich. Most of this stuff hits the market with minimal or doctored studies to prove their safety or benefit. I think back to my grandmothers and mother who did everything with pure Sunlight soap. Dishes, clothes floors, walls sidewalks, personal hygiene and grand children. We kept on with that tradition and have remained clean and healthy. So when I see all the cleaning and personal hygiene products out there it's obvious we are being fooled and screwed.