Soapy Solutions to Antibacterials
We all know washing hands often is an essential part of staying healthy. But, what are we using to get the job done? Consumers are hard pressed these days to find hand soap that does not contain antibacterial additives. In fact, over 700 household products on the market today have antibacterial properties, as compared to only a few dozen in the mid 1990s. 
But do we really need them? Not necessarily according to Elaine L. Larson, Ph.D. who in a double-blind study evaluated antibacterial cleaningand hand washing products. The researchers found, “The tested antibacterial products did not reduce the risk for symptoms of viral infectious diseases in households that included essentially healthy persons.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control actually cautions against the use of these potent germ-killers in healthy households. In the CDC’s June 2001 issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases Stuart B. Levy of Tufts University School of Medicine says scientists are concerned about encouraging the spread of resistant bacteria—making antibacterials and possibly even antibiotics ineffective. For individuals, the overuse of antibacterials could mean a greater chance of allergies in children due to altered internal microflora that can no longer fully support the immune system.
More recent research associates antimicrobials with even more worrisome health effects. Triclosan (a widely-used antibacterial additive) in dishwashing soap can react with chlorinated tap water to create chloroform , reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Toxicology Program. Users can be exposed through inhalation and skin absorption. Additionally, several dioxins can be found in varying low level amounts as impurities in triclosan. One dioxin in particular (TCDD) is a known human carcinogen. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has documented other health effects from dioxins, reproductive damage, birth defects, decreased fertility, and increased miscarriages.
So if not antibacterials, then what? Plain soap, such as an olive oil-based castile soap works just fine. Popular brands include Dr. Bronner’s, Kirk’s Castile, and Vermont Soap. Which one you use doesn’t matter as much as how you use it. In fact, according to the American Cancer Society, “Rubbing your hands together under running water is the most important part of washing away infectious germs.” They also recommend using warm water and rubbing hands together for 10 to 15 seconds after lather appears. Encourage kids to sing their ABCs, Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, or another fun song until their hands are good and bubbly.
If you must use an antibacterial for hand washing, try CleanWell’s All Natural Hand Soap, which kills 99.99% of germs with thyme oil as the active ingredient.
For hand sanitizing on the go, CleanWell offers an All-Natural Hand Sanitizer. Or, reach for an alcohol-based product. Isopropyl alcohol will work, but it is a petroleum by-product. Products made with fruit or grain derived alcohol, such as Sensibility Soap’s USDA certified organic Iced Mint/ Vanilla Waterless Hand Sanitizer or Benedetta Clearing Spray with grape alcohol are a more natural option.
If you decide to dispose of household antibacterial products, do not put them down the drain. Triclosan can degrade when exposed to sunlight in rivers and streams to produce dioxin. In June 2006, Environmental Science & Technology published a study which determined that 75% of triclocarban (another popular antibacterial) washed down the drain persists even after wastewater treatment. You can take any leftover products to your community’s next household hazardous waste day.
-Melissa Cooper Sargent
Winter 2007 (updated Winter 2010)
Click Soapy Solutions for a pdf version of this article
Stuart B. Levy, 2001. Antibacterial Household Products: Cause for Concern. Emerging Infectious Diseases, Vol.7, No.3 supplement, 512-515.
 Larson, E.L., S.X. Lin, C. Gomez-Pichardo, and P. Della-Latta. 2004. Effect of Anti-Bacterial Home Cleaning and Handwashing Products on Infectious Disease Symptoms: A Randomized, Double-Blind Trial. Annals of Internal Medicine 140:321-329.
 Ref #1
 Krista L. Rule, Virginia R. Ebbett, and Peter J.Vikesland. 2005. Formation of Chloroform and Chlorinated Organics by Free-Chlorine-Mediated Oxidation of Triclosan. Environ. Sci. Technol., 39 (9), 3176 –3185.
(accessed August 31, 2006)
 Ref #5
 Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 1998. Public Health Statement for Chlorinated Dibenzo-p-dioxins (CDDs). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service.
 Douglas E. Latch, Jennifer L. Packer, Brian L. Stender, Jennifer VanOverbeke, William A. Arnold, and Kristopher McNeill.2004.Aqueous Photochemistry of Triclosan: Formation of 2,4-Dichlorophenol, 2,8-Dichlorodibenzo-p-Dioxin, and Oligomerization Products. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry: Vol.24, No.3, pp. 517–525.
 Jochen Heidler, Amir Sapkota, and Rolf U. Halden. 2006. Partitioning, Persistence, and Accumulation in Digested Sludge of the Topical Antiseptic Triclocarban during Wastewater Treatment. Environ. Sci. Technol., 40 (11), 3634 –3639.