That's a question being studied by a group of researchers at the University
of California, Davis. In three separate studies, the researchers showed that
the chemicals -- triclosan and triclocarban -- have potential to affect sex
hormones and interfere with the nervous system.
Dan Chang, PhD, a professor of environmental engineering at U.C. Davis and
one of the researchers involved, says he doesn't want to cause a panic, but
"the public should be aware of some of the concerns."
While Chang and the other researchers involved in the studies admit that
it's too early to know whether the chemicals pose a serious health risk, it's
already been shown that the cleaners might not work any better than
regular soap and water -- and may contribute to the rise of resistant bacteria.
So, they ask, why take the risk?
In October, the researchers will pose that question when they meet with
representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the CDC, and some
of the product manufacturers to talk about what they view as a potential public
The stakes are high for the manufacturers: Antibacterial products account
for about $1 billion in sales annually. Triclosan is found in 76% of all liquid
soap sold in stores and is also added to toothpaste, mouthwash, cosmetics,
fabrics, and plastic kitchenware. Triclocarban is a common additive in
antibacterial bar soap and deodorant.
"These compounds should be voluntarily removed by consumer product
manufacturers," Chang tells WebMD, or at least, consumers should "be
provided precautionary information regarding their use."
Brian Sansoni, spokesman for the Soap and Detergent Association, an
organization headquartered in Washington D.C. that represents manufacturers of
all kinds of cleaning products, says studies have shown the products are
"They have been reviewed and analyzed and studied by scientists and
government agencies for decades," Sansoni says. "We're disappointed at
some of the alarmist conclusions made by the authors."
Sansoni confirms that a representative of the association plans to meet with
U.C. Davis researchers. But he says their findings aren't too worrisome.
"Consumers can continue to safely use antibacterial soap and hygiene
products with confidence," he says.
The Government's Perspective
Developed in the 1950s and 1960s, triclocarban and triclosan were first used
mainly as antiseptic agents in hospitals. Sales of consumer antibacterial
products took off in the early 1990s, backed by multimillion-dollar ad
campaigns for popular soap. By 2004, manufacturers were introducing hundreds of
new antibacterial products every year.