This post is about a marketing paradox. It's about a product ingredient advertised for its ability to protect our health, which it does well in professional health care settings, but which may, indirectly, have the potential to do the opposite in consumer product applications. Previously we mentioned the surprising number of personal care products that contain very small amounts of the anti-bacterial compound Triclosan. Although Triclosan has an important role in keeping hospitals and clinics sterile, wide spread use of the compound in non-essential, dilute formulations for personal care products is a different matter. The concern is with direct impacts on fish and aquatic life, via wastewater discharges, as well as indirect impacts on human human health. In our earlier "frog disruptor" post about Triclosan we speculated that an unstated rationale for formulating products with low levels of an antibacterial like Triclosan could be to increase product shelf life. Now comes an extensive review of the scientific literature by University of Michigan researchers which questions, broadly, the functionality and long range health benefits of Triclosan in consumer products.
"Antibacterial soaps that contain triclosan as the main active ingredient are no better at preventing infections than plain soaps, say University of Michigan researchers who reviewed 27 studies conducted between 1980 and 2006 to reach their conclusion."
"The team also concluded that these antibacterial soaps could actually pose a health risk, because they may reduce the effectiveness of some common antibiotics, such as amoxicillin. That's because -- unlike antibacterial soaps used in hospitals and other clinical settings -- the antibacterial soaps sold to the public don't contain high enough concentrations of triclosan to kill bacteria such as E. coli."
"In the first known comprehensive analysis of whether antibacterial soaps work better than plain soaps, Allison Aiello of the U-M School of Public Health and her team found that washing hands with an antibacterial soap was no more effective in preventing infectious illness than plain soap. Moreover, antibacterial soaps at formulations sold to the public do not remove any more bacteria from the hands during washing than plain soaps."
Closing comment: this new study being a literature review only, means additional research will likely be required before regulatory agencies like FDA feel they understand the risk/benefit trade off fully, and are prepared to act on that understanding. If you'd rather not wait for closure on that process, there are plenty of personal care products offered without anti-bacterial agents.