Walk past any Bath & Body Works store and you’ll see a colourful display of popular antibacterial soaps. Sold in thick plastic containers with bulky, foam-producing pumps on top and loaded with fragrance, these liquid soaps are ubiquitous. There’s a problem with them that goes beyond the excessive plastic packaging. They are ‘antibacterial,’ as are so many other soaps, body scrubs, and lip glosses these days, not to mention household cleaners, sponges, even mattresses. The world has gone crazy for antibacterial products – but, unfortunately, antibacterial is bad.
The Mayo Clinic’s official hand-washing guide explains:
Keep in mind that antibacterial soap is no more effective at killing germs than is regular soap. Using antibacterial soap may even lead to the development of bacteria that are resistant to the product's antimicrobial agents — making it harder to kill these germs in the future.
The problem with antibacterial cleaners is that they leave a surface residue after being rinsed or wiped away. This residue is supposed to continue killing bacteria afterwards, but it can also foster the growth of resistant bacteria, which are stronger than the original bacteria. Triclosan, a common ingredient in antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizers, is a probable human carcinogen, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and has been linked to miscarriages, bladder cancer, thyroid problems, and impaired cellular function. Triclosan, also known as Microban, has been found in breast milk and exists in 60 percent of American waterways, which opens a pathway for potential contamination of food. In 2009, the Canadian Medical Association called on its government to ban all antibacterial products but was unsuccessful.
As unexciting as it is, plain old bar soap is the way to go. Regular soap works by loosening dirt, oil, and microbes so they can be rinsed away. Effective hand washing requires vigorous scrubbing of all surfaces and should last at least 20 seconds. (Try singing “Happy Birthday” twice through while scrubbing.) A bar of soap requires little to no packaging, and the greenest option is one with a vegetable glycerine base, free from chemical fragrance and, by extension, phthalates.