Antimicrobials do more harm than good, according to statement signed by 200 researchers

Researchers warn against using antimicrobial soaps. Image credits: Darren Hester / Flickr.

If you’re using antimicrobial soaps, you might want to reconsider that. Sure, you think you’re doing the best, but according to a statement published in a peer-reviewed journal called Environmental Health Perspectives by over 200 scientists and health professionals, you’re not doing anyone any favors. In fact, you might be doing more harm than good.

The paper, signed by people from 29 different countries, discusses not only the lack of evidence related to the benefits of antimicrobial soaps but also the health and ecological hazards associated with them. They also released this cute video which showcases the gist of their publication.

“People think antimicrobial hand soaps offer better protection against illness. But generally, antimicrobial soaps perform no better than plain soap and water,” said Barbara Sattler, RN, DrPH, FAAN, environmental health professor at the University of San Francisco.

The two most famous and widely used antimicrobial substances are the infamous triclosan and triclocarban. For starters, both substances are endocrine disruptors, which means they interfere with important hormonal processes. This can directly or indirectly affect our immune system as well as our brain — thyroid, testosterone, and estrogen regulation are especially affected. A large study has also linked triclosan, which is also used in other products like detergents, to cancer. They also end up, in a variety of forms, in natural environments, causing significant damage. To make things even worse, we are facing a global drug-resistance crisis, largely powered by our overuse of antimicrobial products. But perhaps the most important reason why you shouldn’t use antimicrobial soaps is that they don’t work.

Study after study has shown that washing your hands with water and regular soap (be it cold or warm water) is just as effective as using antimicrobial soaps. There are very few — if any — proved benefits, and yet people still opt for such products. Thankfully, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled that 19 different antimicrobial chemicals, including triclosan and triclocarban, were not effective, and there is no evidence they are safe either. So they effectively banned these substances from soaps, but like a hydra with many heads, other antimicrobial substances popped up to replace them — and these substitutes may be even worse. To make things even worse, it’s not just soaps. Nowadays, antimicrobials appear in a number of products you’d never expect them, such as paints, exercise mats, flooring, apparel, food storage containers, home textiles, electronics, kitchenware, school supplies, and countertops.

 “I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps. But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse,” said Arlene Blum, PhD, Executive Director of Green Science Policy Institute.

This is why Blum, Sattler, and hundreds of other researchers signed this statement (which you can read here): to tell people they don’t work and to avoid them whenever possible.

“Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do,” said Ted Schettler, MD, MPH, Science Director of the Science and Environmental Health Network. In 2016, Dr. Schettler authored a report on antimicrobials in hospital furnishings for the nonprofit Health Care Without Harm.

Seriously, any soap will do just fine. Image via Pixabay.

The problem, or at least a big part of the problem, is that a simple name can be so powerful: antimicrobial. Who doesn’t like that? Who doesn’t want to eliminate germs? What parent wouldn’t opt for an antimicrobial soap, compared to just a soap? But we shouldn’t fall for that. Names can be tricky, and marketing can be even trickier. Don’t fall for that. Trust the scientists, not the marketers.

The statement also includes several recommendations, both for consumers and policy makers, which we’ll present here:

  • Avoid the use of triclosan, triclocarban, and other antimicrobial chemicals except where they provide an evidence-based health benefit (e.g., physician-prescribed toothpaste for treating gum disease) and there is adequate evidence demonstrating they are safe.
  • Where antimicrobials are necessary, use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems.
  • Label all products containing triclosan, triclocarban, and other antimicrobials, even in cases where no health claims are made.
  • Evaluate the safety of antimicrobials and their transformation products throughout the entire product lifecycle, including manufacture, long-term use, disposal, and environmental release.

The bottom line is pretty simple: wash your hands with water and soap, avoid antimicrobials. Read the labels of products and see what they contain. Don’t fall for an attractive name. Follow the science.

Journal Reference: Rolf U. Haiden et al — The Florence Statement on Triclosan and Triclocarban. DOI:10.1289/EHP1788

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