Harmful Handwashing: The Dangers of Antibacterial Soaps

Written by Beth Corcoran, Contributing Writer

I love this time of year, when the leaves start to change colors and the air turns crisp at night.  But as I enjoy the lovely colors and smells of this season, a part of me sighs deeply as I realize we are once again entering the time of year when it seems someone is always sick in my house.

This is also the time that TV commercials start to heavily push the use of hand sanitizers and soaps.  But the question is not a matter of which brand we should choose.  The question is whether or not these items are truly necessary in the fight against germs.

So let’s dive right in and take a look at what actually happens when you clean your hands with antibacterial soap.

Why Antibacterial Soap Came to Be

Soaps containing antibacterial chemicals got their start in hospitals and clinics.  Those are both places where a sterile environment is necessary and much appreciated.  It has only been in the recent years that these soaps have been marketed and sold to the household consumer.

My dad is a surgeon, and when I was growing up, he would always come home smelling heavily of the antibacterial soaps that they use when they scrub in for surgery.  So when my family was able to buy soaps at the store that smelled like hospital, I personally thought it was pretty neat because I, too, could smell like I had just scrubbed in for surgery—which was a dream of mine as a child.

Of course, antibacterial soaps have been desirable for other reasons than just making you smell like a hospital.  Consumers buy the products because they claim to be effective in killing up to 99.9% of the bacteria on your hands. That is an attractive claim when you have lots of kids at home and illness is sweeping through your town.

Although there appears to be a benefit to buying antibacterial products, research is starting to show that these soaps may actually cause more harm than good.

Potential Harm From Using Antibacterial Products

  • The antibacterial chemicals are essentially antibiotics.  They are effective in killing bacteria, but do not kill viruses, which are the cause of colds and the flu.
  • The most susceptible bacteria strains are killed when washing your hands, leaving behind the stronger bacteria.  This can lead to strains of bacteria resistant to antibiotics, such as the MRSA that we hear so much about in the news.
  • Research has shown that exposure to bacteria can actually be good because it strengthens your immune system.   People—especially children—who live in a particularly sterile environment are more prone to infections when they do have exposure to germs.
  • According to the CDC, researchers are finding a link between allergies and the use of antibacterial soaps.  Again, the soaps reduce the need for the immune system to be strengthened, which can cause allergy problems as well.
Photo credit Arlington County

Concerns About Triclosan

On top of the concerns already mentioned, there are increasing concerns about triclosan, which is the antibacterial ingredient in most commercial hand soaps and cleansers.  Here are a few:

  • When mixed with chlorinated water (plain tap water), triclosan and the chlorine form chloroform gas.  This is especially dangerous if you are using an antibacterial product for bathing.
  • Triclosan has been shown to cause endocrine disruption, which essentially means that it can disrupt hormones.  The triclosan can accumulate in the fat in your body and cause hormonal problems.  It has also been shown to damage liver function.
  • Triclosan has been linked to eczema, asthma and allergic reactions.

As you can see, antibacterial soaps (and cleaners, too!) can potentially cause much more harm than good.  Of course, I am not talking about the use of it in hospitals or use by people with special health concerns that require its use.  But for everyday use, antibacterial soaps—especially with triclosan—can be a very unhealthy option.

So is there any hope for cold and flu season?  What can we do with all those little germy hands that come home from playing outside?

The good news is that scientists show that use of good, old fashioned, regular soap is just as effective in washing bacteria and viruses off of our hands as antibacterial soap. All you have to do is lather up and scrub well.  The germ fighting power comes from scrubbing thoroughly and effectively rather than from any chemical additives.  This way you can get rid of most of the germs without knowingly exposing yourself to potentially harmful chemicals.

Here’s to happy handwashing this winter!!

Do you use antibacterial soap in your home? Why or why not?

Photo credit 96dpi

About Beth Corcoran

I am the mother of four children (wait- make that six as of recently!)—two girls and two boys, ages 7, 6, 5, and 2 ½. While not homeschooling or chauffeuring the kids to their activities, I enjoy all kinds of craft projects and learning how to be a better steward of all that the Lord has given me. My blog is Stewardship Not Convenience.

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  1. I have just stopped using antibacterial soap. The thing is it kills good bacteria as well.
    I have had a cronic rash in the groin area for a while and it was driving me up the wall. Now it is clearing up nicely just quickly washing and rinsing fast with normal soap.
    In my opinion anti-bacterial soap should only be used by surgions.

  2. I am 17 years old and I have severe ocd and have had it since I can remember. My mum used to see me doing strange things and telling people off when they touched me, then demanding they say sorry a certain number of times. Compared to now though back then it wasn’t no where near as bad. In the last 4 years my ocd has ruined my life and my teen years. I am currently housebound because I am scared of going outside because of germs. The rare times I do go out I come home and spend 3 hours washing my body with Carex 99% antibacterial soap. It is known to be a very strong soap and its a handwash. I also scrub my body with the rough side of a bath sponge making my skin constantly dry, itchy and burny. I also wash even if I have just accidently touched something that I class as dirty in my own home even when I haven’t been out. I walk through the house sideways making sure my back, hair, arms and body doesn’t go anywhere near anything. I don’t even have to touch it I could be 30 cms away from it but I think in my mind that germs can somehow jump and get to me so then I have to wash all over again. Its a living nightmare. I also have to count a lot but I’m not going into that as I’m here to talk about the soap. Antibacterial soap is my life. In one wash I use 3 250ml bottles of carex handsoap and end up with my entire body bright red and burning. I hate it so much as it then drys out and goes incedibly itchy and uncomfortable. I try to stop washing but I just feel disgusting and coverd in germs if I don’t use that soap. I also refuse to use any other soap apart from carex soap. My mum, dad and sisters try to help me and are careful not to come near me with certain things but there are always accidents. Take the other day for example: I had just come downstairs after I had been washing for 3 hours. I walked into the room and my dad accidently put the tv remote near me… I cried so much as my skin was hurting and I didn’t want to go and wash again but I felt I had too. It gets me so depressed. I have been getting help from places for since I was 9 but its just got worde as the cbt they give me isn’t very good. I live in the UK and think that the NHS is rubbish when it comes to things like mental illness. I hope that I can get back to my job working as a waitress and back to college where I was doing an animal care course. I had to quit them two years ago because of my ocd. I think more should be said about the pros and cons of anti bacterial soap on tv too. I know I use way out of propotion but that’s because I believe that using that will get rid of all the germs on me and that using normal no anti bacterial soap won’t do anything. Thanks for this article its made me think twice and I might try to use some more sensitive gentle soap.

  3. I’m really enjoying your blog! Thanks for such well-written and well-researched posts. I plan to link to this one in my own post scheduled for Monday afternoon…thanks!

  4. We don’t like foaming soap, and we have been using Dr. Bronner’s or other Castile soaps in our regular dispensers. The person leak is, it’s such a thin liquid soap to begin with that it shoots out of the container and onto the mirrors, doors, and walls. I’ve been looking for a soap that is low on the EWG list that won’t do that but it seems most of the lower number soaps are either bar or foaming.

  5. I have an antibacterial home made soap which I use with my family. I think its good to know how to make soap at home so we can avoid those soaps have bad chemicals which make our skin rough. I also recommend to use hand sanitizers than soap before eating.

  6. Jeni Elliott says:

    We haven’t used antibacterial soap (or the instant stuff) for several years. While in the hospital having my second child, I caught C-dif, a hospital super-bug. The rest of my family got it from me. It was HORrible, but during the infection I found out that triclosan will actually open up the C-dif spores, which lay dormant in a person’s body for two years after infection! Now I’m the crazy mom at the petting zoo who won’t *let* her kids use hand sanitizer!


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