Antibacterial Chemicals – Helpful or Harmful?

AntiBacBy Jacquie Eubanks BSN, RN

Antibacterial chemicals are widely used in everyday products such as soaps, cosmetics, toothpaste, cleaning products, deodorant and even clothing, socks, office supplies and kitchenware.  They are intended to disinfect surfaces, keeping bacteria at bay in the hope of keeping us healthy. Technically, an antibacterial is an agent that interferes with growth and reproduction of bacteria.  It is estimated that 75% of antibacterial soaps and body washes sold in the United States contain the germ killing ingredients triclosan or triclocarban.  Although antibacterials have been shown to effective in killing bacteria, there is considerable controversy surrounding their health benefits. 

Antibacterials and antimicrobials were originally invented for hospital use to prevent the spread of infection.  However, as more and more products were marketed for everyday use, some germs and bacteria have evolved to become resistant to antibacterials, much like their counterparts antibiotics.  Studies suggest that the widespread use of these antimicrobial chemicals are causing the products to lose their effectiveness.  It should be noted that most bacteria are harmless and in many cases, beneficial.  The constant overuse of antibacterial agents tends to disrupt the normal bacteria that act as barriers against invading pathogens. 

Antibacterial resistance is considered by some to be a national health concern.  The widespread use of antibacterial compounds such as triclosan may actually contribute to stronger, more resistant bacterial strains.  Researchers hypothesize that our desire for a germ-free environment provides a selective advantage for these resistant organisms, such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus known as MRSA.  The American Medical Association (AMA) recommends avoidance of antibacterial products on the grounds that no data exists to support their efficacy. 

However, antibacterials are useful in settings where the level of sanitation is critical such as hospitals, nursing homes or daycare centers.  A case can be made for its use in home settings where individuals may have a compromised immune system, chronic disease, or are recuperating from transplant surgery or undergoing chemotherapy.  Even then, it is suggested that antibacterials be used according to protocol or under the guidance of a healthcare professional.  For the majority of us, washing with regular soap and water is still considered the most important way to prevent the spread of disease. 

Triclosan is lipophillic, which means it is readily available for absorption and can accumulate in fatty tissues.  Triclosan has been detected at high concentrations in human breast milk and  blood, and The Centers for Disease Control has reportedly found triclosan in 75% of the U.S. populations’ urine samples.  Studies have shown negative health effects of triclosan, such as interference with the body’s thyroid hormone metabolism, promotion of early puberty and endocrine disruption.  

Triclosan is prevalent in the environment and has found its way into our nation’s waterways.  Over 95% of triclosan is washed down residential drains and consequently is the most prevalent contaminant not removed by wastewater treatment plants.  Triclosan is one of the most frequently detected compounds with the highest concentrations in our nation’s watersheds, where it is toxic to the immune systems of fish and aquatic animals.  When exposed to sunlight in an aquatic environment, triclosan converts to dioxin, a highly toxic known carcinogen that can cause decreased fertility, miscarriage, birth defects and a weakened immune system.  Currently, triclosan accounts for 60% of all drugs detectable in sewage sludge and 435,000 pounds of it is dumped onto US farmlands each year, contaminating food with drug-resistant microbes and soap chemicals.  These chemicals are thought to persist in soil for 50 years or more. 

The Canadian government has banned triclosan from consumer products.  After triclosan was found in the sediment of 8 Minnesota lakes and rivers including Lake Superior, Minnesota state agencies have stopped buying products that contain tricolsan to reduce the state’s impact on the environment.  Norway has banned its use altogether in consumer products.  Recently the FDA took a step toward the possible elimination of triclosan in everyday products.  Manufacturers have one year to show that these chemicals are not only safe but that they actually outperform plain old soap and water.  Some companies have already taken steps to remove triclosan from their products. 

The removal of these substances from everyday products is an important step towards preserving the efficacy of antibiotics, preventing unnecessary exposure to potentially harmful chemicals and protecting the environment.  In the meantime, you can check ingredient labels for products containing triclosan and triclocarban to reduce your own exposure.  Use regular soap and water to wash your hands.  If soap and water is not available, use an alcohol based or plant based hand sanitizer.  As a general rule to cut down on your exposure to triclosan and triclocarban, avoid products with anti-odor, antimicrobial or germ-killing label claims. 

As our skin is our largest organ and everything we put on our skin has potential to end up in our bodies, consider switching to personal care items that do not contain triclosan, phthalates, heavy metals or GMO ingredients.

Thorne Organics provides a line of personal care products made from certified organic essential oils, resins and botanicals from renewable sources.  These products contain antioxidants, nutrients and enzymes that hydrate and nourish the skin, hair and body.  Thorne Organics Dermal Matrix System products include shampoo, lotions, shower gel, a variety of soaps and other products and are available here at Professional Supplement Center


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