Antibacterial Soap Myth

Have you noticed that practically everywhere you go you see pump bottles of antibacterial soap on the bathroom sink in stores, offices, homes, etc.? Pump! Pump! Signs urge us to protect each other from illness by pumping this liquid soap onto our hands. For many people, this act has become automatic. But is it any better than simply washing our hands the old-fashioned way with regular soap and water? Turns out it isn’t.

Research has shown that antibacterial soaps are no better than ordinary soap and water for germ removal or disease prevention.

Researchers at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and University of Michigan’s School of Public Health have found that hand washing with soap and water is the most effective way to prevent bacteria and disease, and it is just as effective as antibacterial (aka antimicrobial) soaps.

Unfortunately, the typical hand wash lasts only five seconds. To thoroughly wash your hands, use warm water to lather your hands vigorously for at least 20 seconds and then rinse for another 20 seconds. (About the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice to yourself . . . or any song of your choosing for an equal amount of time.) The longer you wash, the more effectively you kill bacteria.

Additional research at Columbia University showed that those who use antimicrobial soaps are no healthier than those who don’t. In fact, you could be doing more harm than good when you use these products.

Antibacterial cleansers were originally created for hospital use to protect patients with weak immune systems from disease-causing bacteria. Using antibacterial soaps and cleaners in healthy households potentially lessen their effectiveness while damaging our bodies’ natural bacterial resistance and actually harms our health.

“It is possible that a person can be too clean for their own good,” says Allison Aiello, principal investigator on the University of Michigan’s study. “The triclosan findings in the younger age groups may support the ‘hygiene hypothesis,’ which maintains living in very clean and hygienic environments may impact our exposure to micro-organisms that are beneficial for development of the immune system.”

Triclosan, the synthetic chemical that is the active ingredient in these antibacterial soaps, has been implicated in the creation of “superbugs” or antibiotic-resistant bacteria. With the creation of these superbugs, triclosan will kill all but the most dangerous bacteria, leaving the superbugs to take over our immune system. Research has shown that prominent bacteria such as e.coli, salmonella, and other intestinal bacteria become resistant to triclosan fairly quickly.

And what happens when this chemical washes down the sink? Our waste water treatment process does not remove all of the chemicals. Triclosan ends up back in our water supply as well as in lakes, rivers and other water sources where it is very toxic to aquatic life.

To further advocate against the use of triclosan, research has shown this chemical disrupts normal endocrine (hormone) function, particularly effecting thyroid function and sex hormones levels. Animal studies link these chemicals to a variety of problems including cancer, reproductive failure and developmental anomalies including sex changes in aquatic life.

How about humans? According to the CDC, triclosan is in the urine of 75 percent of the American population. We don’t know all the effects on humans yet, though triclosan has been implicated in our worsening allergies as well as in disrupting estrogen production and interfering with fetal development when pregnant women are exposed to it.

If you must use a hand sanitizer, pick one that’s alcohol based and doesn’t list triclosan, triclocarban (another related antibacterial chemical) or other chemicals described as “antimicrobial” or “antibacterial” on the label.

Other countries, including the members of European Union, have banned or restricted use of the triclosan.

In the US, the FDA is working on a scientific assessment of the chemical to be released later this year. The FDA is already on record as saying that using antibacterial soaps is no more effective than simply washing your hands thoroughly.

Avoid products that say they are “antibacterial” or “fights germs” or “protect against mold” as they may contain triclosan. Other than hand soap, triclosan may be present in other liquid soaps, hand sanitizers, dishwashing liquids, shaving gels, mouthwash, toothpaste, deodorant, first-aid creams and even cutting boards and kitchenware, socks, clothes, flooring and toys.

For more information about Triclosan see The Ubiquitous Triclosan Factsheet and visit the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Triclosan.


In September of 2016, the FDA issued a ban on over-the-counter hand soaps and body washes containing triclosan, triclocarban and 17 other active ingredients. Manufacturers were given a year to comply with the ruling, which doesn’t affect store-bought antiseptic rubs such as hand sanitizers or antibacterial products used in health care settings.