How Far Will You Go to Avoid Antibacterial Soap?

Sometimes plain water is a better alternative than certain soaps. (Photo: Subbotina Anna/Shutterstock)

Hand-washing has proven benefits when it comes to avoiding illness. Studies have shown that it's literally one of the simplest things you can do to prevent disease — and even save lives. "Researchers in London estimate that if everyone routinely washed their hands, a million deaths a year could be prevented," reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

So like many others, I'm into hand-washing. It's an easy way to not only avoid getting sick, but to prevent myself from being a carrier of something that could hurt someone else. But if the soap available is antibacterial, I'll rinse my hands vigorously with just water. That's because I'm extremely wary of triclosan, the primary chemical used in soaps marked "antibacterial." Not only do these soaps lead to antibiotic resistance, but they are hormone disruptors and have been shown to cause cancerous tumors in mice. (It's worth noting that the FDA has banned triclosan as an ingredient in products like liquid hand soap, yet these products are still surprisingly common — and triclosan is hiding in a lot of other products as well.)

One study indicating triclosan is problematic shows that it negatively affects the healthy bacteria in the guts of zebrafish; whether it does the same for humans isn't known, but it's concerning. (Zebrafish's simpler bodies are often used in experiments to test direct effects of chemicals on bacteria before those same experiments are done on mice or tested on humans.) And don't forget that triclosan doesn't just affect your health; when it washes down your drain and into our water supplies it causes more problems. Researchers have called triclosan "highly toxic" to fish and other marine creatures, which we like to eat.

Most disheartening of all, considering all the negative effects of triclosan, it hasn't even been found to kill more bacteria than regular hand-washing. That's right: one study found that antibacterial soaps are no more effective than plain soap.

Here, Bill Nye, the Science Guy, takes a look at antibacterial soap versus plain water:

I'm not the only one who won't wash with antibacterial soaps: When I asked my 1,000-plus Facebook friends about the subject, there was plenty of response. Reena Kazmann, a Washington, D.C.-based ecopreneur wrote: "I have never knowingly used antibacterial soap, anywhere. I rinse hands or, when I remember to bring it, use hand sanitizer." (Kazmann has even made her own sanitizer; she says mixtures with 60 percent alcohol or more are proven and safe bug killers.)

Dan Sieradski, a father to a young child, doesn't keep any soaps with triclosan in his home, and last year, he asked his wife not to buy them either: "I knew it increased antibiotic resistance, but when I'd read it was an endocrine disruptor from a fairly reputable source, I decided not to take anymore chances with the stuff," he wrote.

Sophia Paliov, a California-based public relations professional and dog lover wrote: "I don't avoid it, but I don't buy it either. I use regular soap in my home, but in public I'll use whatever is available." David Lanphier Jr. who lives in New York City, spends a lot of time with a 7-year-old, and he writes, "I don't use antibacterial soaps, but will rinse with water only. I will use the hand sanitizer in a pinch, but we don't go out of our way to use it or buy."

Hand-washing with just water is pretty effective: This has been studied because in many places in the world, soap simply isn't available. A study in Bangladesh looked at disease transmission in homes with varying degrees of hand-cleaning and found: "In households where food was prepared without washing hands, children had diarrhea in 12.5% of monthly assessments compared with 8.3% in households where one hand was washed with water only, 6.9% where both hands were washed with water only, and 3.7% where at least one hand was washed with soap. Food preparers commonly washed one or both hands with water only, but fieldworkers observed food preparers washing at least one hand with soap in only three households (1%)."

Hand sanitizers (without triclosan) are a good option if you're wary of antibacterial soaps. There are all-natural ones available — the key is to look for the CDC-recommended 60 percent alcohol, which is proven to kill germs and viruses effectively. Lavender and tea tree oil are often added to sanitizers. Those oils have their own anti-microbial effects, and they smell nice too.