5 reasons to skip antibacterial soap and its risks

They don’t prevent infections better than regular soap, and may pose risks

Published: October 15, 2014 11:00 AM

In 2009, Americans reacted to the H1N1 flu epidemic by buying antibacterial soaps in record amounts. Sales have continued to climb each year since, and are likely to skyrocket now, in response to the current Ebola scare. But there’s no reason to stock up on antibacterial soaps. They don’t work any better than regular soap, and may pose risks. Here’s why you should skip them—and what you should do instead.

1. Antibacterial soaps won’t help prevent infections caused by viruses.

The three infectious diseases now dominating the news—Ebola, the flu, and enterovirus D68  (a respiratory infection that has sent thousands of kids across the country to the ER this fall) are all viral, not bacterial. “Just like you shouldn’t take an antibiotic drug to treat a viral infection, like the cold or flu, there’s no reason you would use an antibacterial soap to kill viruses,” says Consumer Reports' Chief Medical Adviser, Marvin M. Lipman, M.D.

2. Antibacterial soaps aren’t better than soap and water at preventing even bacterial infections.

The most common antibacterial ingredient in antibacterial soaps is a chemical called triclosan. It’s now included not just in soaps, but also toothpastes and cosmetics. But the Food and Drug Administration says that there’s no evidence that people who use products with triclosan are less likely to develop bacterial infections than people who use regular soap and water.

3. Overuse of antibacterial soaps may breed resistant bacteria.

The more antibiotics are used, the more likely it is that the bacteria they are meant to fight will develop resistance to the drugs. That’s a huge problem in hospitals and doctors offices, as many bacterial infections are becoming harder and harder to treat. That has led the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to caution doctors against unnecessarily prescribing antibiotics. It’s also prompted the Food and Drug Administration to take steps to reduce the use of antibiotics in raising animals. And some research suggests that the widespread use of triclosan might also fuel the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, says Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., director of the Consumer Reports Center for Safety and Sustainability.

Read why you should be worried about overusing antibiotics. And join our efforts to reduce the use of antibiotics in raising animals, Meat Without Drugs.

4.  Triclosan may pose other health risks, too.

Animal research suggests that triclosan may interfere with the body’s regulation of thyroid hormone. If that happens in humans, too, it could contribute to infertility, early puberty, obesity, and other problems. Other research hints that children with long exposure to triclosan may be more likely to develop allergies. Triclosan is so ubiquitious these days, that in one recent study the chemical was detected in the urine of 75 percent of the people tested.

5. Antibacterial soaps may be harmful to the environment.

With triclosan in so many products, a lot makes it into the sewer system and, ultimately, into rivers and even the ocean. Some research suggests the chemical may interfere with algae’s ability to perform photosynthesis.  

Bottom line

For all those reasons, the FDA recently told manufacturers that they have until the middle of 2015 to provide data showing that their antibacterial products are safe and effective. After that, products would have to relabeled, reformulated, or taken off the market. Some companies, including Procter & Gamble, are already removing triclosan from their products. And Minnesota has become the first state to ban the ingredient in consumer products for cleansing or sanitizing. Our experts applaud those steps—and say you should stop using them, too. “Just washing with regular soap and water alone takes care of the job and gets things clean enough,” Rangan says.  

—Catherine Winters

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