“Whether you’re coming home from an airport fluttering with international germs, a daycare full of sticky-fingered toddlers, or just a grimy office building, scrubbing your hands with bacteria-busting soap seems like a great idea. But the data that have washed up on the cleansers in recent years suggest that they actually do more harm than good—for you, those around you, and the environment.”
“And the point hasn’t been lost on the US Food and Drug Administration. Though the agency ruled years ago that triclosan and other antimicrobials are safe, it’s now revisiting claims that the chemicals make soaps and other personal care products better. The FDA has asked antibacterial soap makers to send in data showing that their soaps beat out regular soaps at keeping people germ-free and healthy. The agency expects to announce this September whether the submitted data pass muster. If they don’t, the companies that make up the $5.5 billion soap market may be forced to ditch the chemicals entirely.”
“In the meantime, however, researchers seem to be digging up more and more dirt on the chemicals, particularly triclosan. This antimicrobial is widely used in not just hand soaps, but body washes, shampoos, toothpastes, cosmetics, household cleaners, medical equipment, and more. And it’s just as pervasive in people as it is in homes and clinics. Triclosan easily enters bodies by ingestion (think toothpaste) or skin absorption. It’s commonly found in people’s urine, blood, breast milk, and even their snot.”
“While researchers continue to work out what antimicrobials do while they’re in people’s bodies, Dr. McNamara of Marquette University focuses on what the chemicals do once people pee them out or wash them down the drain. McNamara and his colleagues have been tracking both triclosan and triclocarban in wastewater treatment plants, where both chemicals can accumulate.
In a January study, McNamara, his graduate student Daniel Carey, and colleagues found that triclocarban had the same effect as triclosan—it also disrupts the microbial communities that digest sewage and spurs bacteria to become resistant to drugs.
While some experts are hopeful that actions by the FDA and state regulators may nix the use of these chemicals in commercial products, McNamara thinks consumer choices may be the most powerful way to reduce use of the chemicals. People could use regular soap or ethanol-based sanitizers and have effective, less risky cleansers, he said. “There’s a way that we can still keep our hygiene without having these extra chemicals.”