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Cashins & Associates Blog

Safety and Health, Antibacterial Soaps - Pros and Cons

Posted by Eileen Watkins on Thu, Mar, 06, 2014 @ 15:03 PM

Hand_HygieneA quick walk down the soap aisle of your local supermarket or drug store is all it takes to understand how many antibacterial soap products are available.  What does antibacterial mean, exactly? Are these compounds effective?  Safe?  Why has the FDA recently adopted a new position on them?  What is that position?

Quite simply put, antibacterial compounds kill bacteria or inhibit their activity.  Triclosan is one of the most commonly used antibacterial agents.  It is an active ingredient in many personal care products including soaps, deodorants, and toothpaste.  It is also added to many other consumer products, including plastic kitchen utensils, mattresses, and toys. 

Triclosan was originally used in hospitals, where sterile conditions are imperative.  This compound is valuable tool in any hospital's infection control program.  The successes of triclosan in this industry spawned the idea of introducing it into personal care products and other consumables.  This introduction was coupled with marketing campaigns that convinced us that we would be cleaner and healthier if we used products that contain triclosan or other similar ingredients.

Could an effective bacteriocide like triclosan be harmful?  After all, a review of 25 studies by the Journal of Food Protection (Nov 2011) showed that when compared with regular soaps, antibacterial soaps produced lower bacteria concentrations.  A careful reading of this study points out, however, that while the reductions were significant when bacteria were added onto the subjects' hands, only modest reductions were observed when the experiments were performed using "resident hand flora" - bacteria that were normally present on test subjects' hands. 

Even more importantly, there is no evidence that the use of antibacterial soaps makes us any healthier.  For example, the American Journal of Public Health (Aug 2008) reviewed almost 50 years worth of hand hygiene studies in an effort to look at the impact of hand washing on gastrointestinal and respiratory illnesses.  Interestingly, the most effective reductions in illness were accomplished by way of hand hygiene education coupled with regular soap.  This finding helps to highlight 2 important facts: that antibacterial ingredients target bacteria, not viruses - and that many gastrointestinal and respiratory illnesses are caused by viruses, not bacteria.    

There are other concerns about triclosan.  For starters, the prevalence and heavy use of antibacterial compounds may be helping to create antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  These agents kill many, but not all bacteria.  The bacteria that survive these treatments are stronger from an evolutionary standpoint and will be much harder to kill.  As a result, some bacterial infections that were easily treated in the past are now becoming much harder to eradicate.

Secondly, our reliance on triclosan and focus on eliminating all bacteria from our surroundings may increase the risk of acquiring an allergy.  Immune systems develop and function best when they are routinely exposed to bacteria and other foreign matter that we routinely encounter.  Conversely, immune systems that are not challenged are likely to be weakened.  This may set the stage for an allergy to develop.

Finally, triclosan appears to be a thyroid hormone disrupter.  It is biopersistent - it doesn't easily or quickly break down in living systems, including humans, aquatic creatures, and the environment.  It accumulates in fatty tissues and has been detected in human plasma, urine, and breast milk.

The concerns outlined above prompted the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) to propose a rule that would require antibacterial soap manufacturers to prove that these products are both safe and more effective than regular soap. Products that don't meet these criteria would have to be reformulated, relabeled, or removed from the market sometime late in 2016.  This move is sure to generate controversy, given that the antibacterial industry is estimated to be $1 billion dollars strong.

Industrial Hygiene and Safety Professionals should evaluate whether regular hand soaps would be sufficient in your work place. Elimination of antibacterial soaps have many benefits, including cost savings. If you have any questions please leave a comment or contact us through our web form by clicking the button below.

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