A few months ago I wrote about the antibacterial chemical triclosan being added to your toothpaste. The bad news is, it’s still there if you use Colgate Total. (If you have this junk sitting in your bathroom, throw it away now and buy something else—preferably a non-fluoridated brand without artificial sweetener.)
The good news, on the other hand, is that the FDA has finally used a little scientific common sense. This fall, they’ve done what they should have done many years ago—they’ve banned triclosan and its sister chemical triclocarban for use in soaps, along with 17 other noxious chemicals.
It would be nicer if they’d banned it in toothpaste too, but it’s a start.
Antibacterial soaps don’t work any better than normal soap
The “antibacterial everything” craze we’re experiencing is a very, very recent phenomenon. Not surprisingly, it’s been driven not by real medical concerns but by the companies that manufacture the products. Medical experts have been saying for years that the onslaught of antibacterial everyday products on the market may well do more harm than good. Their primary concern has been that the antibacterial hysteria might be fueling the rise of antibiotic-resistant germs.
But that isn’t the worst of it. Studies have found triclosan to have some very serious health effects. I’ve written about this before but here’s a quick recap:
Triclosan affects muscles’ ability to contract. And it affects heart muscle most strongly. Animal studies show that triclosan can reduce heart muscle function by a shocking 25 percent—which could be the difference between life and death for some people. The same effect was seen when human heart cells were exposed to everyday levels of the stuff. For people with hearts severely damaged by a heart attack, or for those with congestive heart failure, a 25 percent reduction could be serious indeed.
Triclosan is also a hormone disruptor. It affects thyroid function. It also imitates estrogen. And chemicals which imitate estrogen have repeatedly been shown to raise the risk of breast cancer.
But here’s the really bad thing: this stuff is everywhere. It’s added to all kinds of “personal care” products including some cosmetics. Furniture, rugs, kitchenware, and even some clothing may be impregnated with the stuff.
Our germophobia has gotten out of hand. But by far the most common place to find it is in soap…though studies show that it doesn’t kill any more germs than regular soap and water does.
Better late—really, REALLY late—than never
While we certainly didn’t find it in every room of our homes till the past couple decades, this stuff has been around for a long, long time. Believe it or not, Congress asked the FDA to take a look at triclosan more than forty years ago. The FDA has, to put it mildly, done a good job of stalling. They didn’t really dig into the issue until a couple of years ago, when they told manufacturers to show them proof that it was safe and effective.
And then it only came to pass after a lawsuit.
The environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council accused the FDA of dragging their heels in making a decision on whether triclosan is safe and effective. And while that may be the understatement of the century—we’ve been waiting for forty years, remember—it got results. Now, triclosan and those other 18 antibacterial chemicals are banned from consumer soaps and body washes. According to the FDA, "We have no scientific evidence that they are any better than plain soap and water."
It doesn’t, however, apply to products used in a “healthcare setting” or to alcohol antibacterial gels or antibacterial wipes. And of course the ban doesn’t go into effect immediately—manufacturers have a whole year to comply. Nor does it remove this poison from the billion other places we find it—like in our kids’ toys or in the furniture we’re sitting on…or in our toothpaste.
It’s everywhere. It’s so all-pervasive that studies have found triclosan in the urine of 75% of people tested. It’s in our water. It’s in the fish that live in that water and the plants that are irrigated with it. We need to ban it completely. So while this is a step—and a big step at that—in the right direction, we’re far from there yet. So what can you do to reduce your exposure?
Don’t be a germophobe if you value your health
Don’t buy or use anything that says “antibacterial” on it. It’s that simple. Unless you have an active infection that’s being treated, you don’t need antibacterial anything. You certainly don’t need antibacterial furniture, or socks, or God forbid…toothpaste.
Contrary to popular belief (belief heavily shaped by antibacterial soap manufacturers), “clean” doesn’t mean “germ-free.” Germs are everywhere, and we’re exposed to them constantly. There’s no way that we can make our environments germ-free—nor should we want to. Germs play an important role in our lives, and it’s mostly a positive one.
Our gut bacteria influence everything from our ability to use insulin to whether we get fat and how our brains work. Bacteria on our skins protect us from other infections. Studies show that the “cleaner” the environment—the more antibacterial products used—when children are growing up, the more likely they are to develop allergies later.
The list goes on and on. Because here’s the thing about “antibacterial” products: they don’t just kill off the bad germs that make us sick. They also kill all the good ones that keep us healthy. So unless your immune system is seriously compromised—you have HIV or you’re on immune-suppressing drugs or something similar—run for the hills if you see the word “antibacterial.”
And if you’ve relied on “antibacterial” soap during cold and flu season, don’t panic. Studies show that a thorough scrubbing with plain old soap gets rid of more germs than the fancy but toxic antibacterial kind.