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Do You Use Antibacterial Soap?

Cold and flu season is quickly approaching, and to defend ourselves against nasty bugs we’re all washing our hands with antibacterial soaps and offering little squirts of hand sanitizer gel to those around us when we’re out and about. We do this because we want to be healthy, because we want to protect our kids and loved ones from the microbes that can make them sick.

So now let’s get real here, since we’re doing all of this in the name of health and safety. Most antibacterial gels and pretty much all antibacterial soaps rely on a registered pesticide by the name of Triclosan to do their dirty work. Triclosan is effective in killing bacteria in part because residue remains on hands and continues to kill bacteria even after they have been rinsed and dried. Unfortunately, that residual power is what makes it a real menace when it gets out into the environment – and get out it does, considering families all over the US are literally washing it down the drain every time they wash their hands! Wastewater treatment plants can’t effectively remove Triclosan from wastewater, so it’s been found in wastewater effluent and in decades-old sludge at the bottom of lakes. It is toxic to aquatic organisms, and even worse, it’s been found to have synergistic effects when combined with other common contaminants in waterways, potentially increasing its toxicity1.

But you care about your family more than you care about aquatic organisms, right? I do too. That’s why when I first learned about Triclosan, I immediately checked every bottle of soap in the house to make sure it wasn’t labeled “antibacterial”. Like BPA and similar chemicals with long names, Triclosan is a suspected endocrine disruptor, mimicking our natural hormones and potentially causing unwelcome changes in our bodies. It is absorbed through our skin when we wash our hands or rub in the hand sanitizer, then accumulates in our bodies. Right now, it’s estimated that 75% of us in the US carry trace amounts of Triclosan around at all times 2. Of even greater concern, it has been implicated in antibiotic resistance – and when antibiotics no longer work for us when we really need them, then we’re in big trouble.

Are you scared? Don’t be. If we just stick to washing our hands with plain old (non-antibacterial) soap and water, we won’t have to worry about any of this 3 – and we’re really not out much, since antibacterial soaps and gels don’t work on the cold or flu viruses anyway! If you’re out and about and you don’t want to take the time to find a sink to wash up, stick to alcohol-based hand sanitizers that don’t contain questionable antibacterial ingredients, or even better, make your own using essential oils (the internet abounds with recipes). As the law stands right now products containing Triclosan must be labeled, so double-check your favorite brands of soap, toothpaste, dish and laundry detergent, make-up, and other personal care products. Making this one small change can keep your family healthier, and keep waterways safer for everyone else long into the future.