Flagstaff, AZ – Earth Notes: Antibacterial Soaps
It's one of the most time-honored steps to good health: washing your hands. When you soap up, foam made up of fatty acids and sodium hydroxide sticks to dirt, oil and bacteria, allowing them to be rinsed away. But these days many soaps contain other, more problematic ingredients.
Antibacterial soaps are particularly popular. Their most common active ingredient is a chemical called Triclosan (pron. TRICK-LOW-SAN). It's good at killing bacteria yet research results on its effectiveness in practice have been mixed. Studies have shown that washing with commercial antibacterial soaps doesn't necessarily remove any more bacteria from the hands than washing with regular soap.
Triclosan also has no effect on viruses, which cause many common diseases. And some bacteria are actually beneficial: low levels on the skin can remove sweat and defend us against harmful invasive bacterial strains.
Antibacterial soaps may do more harm than good in the wider environment too. Treatment plants aren't able to remove all the Triclosan in wastewater, so residual amounts commonly reach our streams and lakes. And lab experiments on bullfrogs have shown that even at low concentrations Triclosan disrupts the development of tadpoles into frogs.
Thyroid hormones play similar roles in both frog and human development. So some experts worry that antibacterial soaps may be harmful to us as well, with babies and young children particularly at risk.
As you consider how to keep your family and surroundings clean, then, remember that plain old-fashioned soap has lots of cleaning power without the nagging questions.