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Antibacterial Soap: Do You Need It to Keep Your Home Clean?

Antibacterial cleaners don’t work any better than regular ones – and they damage the environment.

Antibacterials in the Environment

Antibacterial soap’s potential to harm people may be controversial, but its growing environmental impact is widely acknowledged. The ingredients in antibacterial cleansers are building up in the environment at a rate that alarms leading researchers.

According to Rolf Halden, PhD, associate professor at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, several million pounds of triclosan and triclocarban (an antibacterial chemical in bar soap) are produced annually. Much of it is flushed or rinsed down drainpipes. “Water treatment plants don’t process the chemicals well. They end up in surface waters, frequently at concentrations that are toxic to aquatic life,” Halden says.

“Walk up to any two streams in the U.S., and one will contain triclosan and triclocarban,” says Halden. “These are by no means ‘green’ chemicals. They do not degrade readily, and they tend to persist in the environment for long periods of time. There is still triclocarban in Jamaica Bay [New York] from the 1950s.”

Additionally, Halden believes that concentrated antibacterial agents in “biosolids” (what’s left over after sewage is treated) are the perfect environment to breed antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Very little research has been done on this “municipal sludge,” Halden says, “but that’s the place we need to start looking for [bacterial] resistance, because that’s where the pathogens are.”

The FDA and EPA are examining antibacterial soap’s impacts on human and environmental health. A 2005 FDA advisory committee found no benefit to antibacterial over regular soap, but potential risks, opening the door to tighter regulation. In response to recent studies, the EPA has said it will formally review triclosan in 2013 -- ten years earlier than previously planned.

Some scientists feel that change is already overdue. In Halden’s view, “without any demonstrated benefit, and with the clear risks to the environment and possibly our health, it’s difficult to justify the ongoing use of these products.”

Nontoxic Solutions

Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently. It’s not the type of soap that prevents the spread of bacteria and viruses, it’s how you wash your hands. Lather up and rub hands together vigorously for 20 seconds. Don’t forget the spaces between your fingers, your wrists, and under your nails. Rinse thoroughly. Dry hands well and launder hand towels often in hot water.

Choose a nontoxic cleaner: Shop for "green" and environmentally friendly cleaners that don't contain triclosan or triclocarbon. Skip these ingredients, too: chlorine, lye, glycol ethers, and ammonia. You don't need them to get surfaces clean.

Disinfect objects that come into contact with raw meat, fish, or eggs, such as cutting boards and utensils: use a dishwasher and be sure it reaches 171 degrees F, and choose an environmentally friendly detergent. Spray cutting boards and counters with a non-toxic disinfectant. You can find such cleaners in stores or make your own by using white vinegar followed by 3% hydrogen peroxide (available in drugstores). Keep the liquids handy in separate spray bottles. It doesn't matter which one you use first, but both are much more effective than either one alone.

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