Selling the Myth of Antibacterial Soap

selling the myth

It took the FDA 42 years – until 2014 – to complete the study it was ordered to begin in 1972. It was tasked to assess the effects of introducing triclosan, the active ingredient in most antibacterial soaps, into the home as companies moved to expand their markets. When report findings were released, the FDA had already missed their promised deadlines of 2011 and 2012.

Antibacterial Soaps Don’t Work

The good news is, there’s 42 years of research to confirm the conclusion other researchers have been reaching for the last 10 years. Antibacterial soaps, in particular those containing triclosan, are no more effective than plain soap and water at preventing infectious illness FDA’s findings is that, beginning in 2016, manufacturers must provide clinical proof of their product’s safety and effectiveness in killing bacteria, beyond that of soap and water, or remove the products from the shelves.

The bad news is, the FDA’s news was 42 years too late. Antibacterial soaps and products for the home became a billion-dollar industry in the 1990s, and corporate America is not letting go of those profits easily. In fact, corporate pressure might have a lot to do with the FDA being decades behind in their findings, including breaking the deadline promises of 2011 and 2012.

Most Likely Bad for Humans and the Environment


The further bad news is, while recent studies have concluded that triclosan is most likely bad for humans and the environment, it’s been insinuating itself into more and more home and personal products, based on the promise that we’re keeping our families healthy and safe. Chances are good that antibacterial soaps and cleaners are doing the very opposite. Which led to Minnesota banning triclosan in May of 2014, causing Brian Sansoni of the American Cleaning Institute to insist it was both safe and researched more “than just about any other ingredient that’s used in consumer products.”

Regulated As a Pesticide

What rarely gets mentioned is that triclosan is regulated by the FDA as a pesticide. Despite that designation, according to Beyond Pesticides, triclosan can be found in all the following household and personal products, as well as hundreds more: Clearasil, Solarcaine, Dial Liquid Soap, Farberware cutting boards, Huntsville furniture, Bauer 5000 hockey helmets, nine different Playskool toys, and a variety of mattress pads and ironing board covers.

When the FDA failed the public in 1972, we began 40 years of antibacterial obsession, fueled by fear, marketing, and bad science. Despite industry spin, the following conclusions about triclosan and antibacterial soaps have emerged from accumulated research:

  • Antibacterials are known endocrine disruptors, which alter the body’s hormone system – especially that of the thyroid – leading to general health problems and an increased susceptibility to cancer. Most recently, triclosan has been suspected of contributing to liver disease and tumors.
  • Antibacterials can contribute to weakening of the immune system, to birth defects, and to uncontrolled cell growth.
  • Antibacterials have the potential to create antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
  • Antibacterials have the potential to interfere with fetal and early-childhood development.
  • Antibacterials that are washed down the drain pass on problems to other animals and to the environment in general.

The Point Isn’t Killing, But Washing Away

There’s a reason you don’t see “use antibacterial soap” on the handwashing instructions in public restrooms. It’s because the actual way to keep your hands clean is to wash with regular soap and water – organic to be truly sure – for 15 to 20 seconds, not to kill bacteria but to wash them away. The truth is antibacterial soaps don’t kill the viruses or the bacteria we need to worry about. They never have. Nothing short of poison can do that. To make the claim that they do is another case of corporations playing on consumer’s best intentions but never holding up their end. In fact, never intending to.

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