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The Truth About Antibacterial Sanitizers

How They Compare With Soap and What's Really In Them?

With a heavier emphasis on fighting off illness this year, it has been the natural choice for many families and businesses to grab up antibacterial soap in an effort to enhance their hand-washing practices. Indeed, you may recall at the beginning of the pandemic, the national shortage of cleaning products, especially antibacterial hand sanitizer. It was frustrating for us to see empty store shelves, unable to buy basic sanitizer, knowing there were people who had cases upon cases of it in their garage. Those first couple of months were a chaotic time as people fearfully reacted to the unknown. Since then, there has been a resurgence of hand sanitizer production and frantic over-purchasing has settled down. However, hand sanitizer is still seen as the gold standard of hand cleanliness in the public eye as we continue to grapple with the best way to stay healthy this year.

Is Antibacterial Sanitizer More Effective Than Soap?

It might come as a surprise, then, that antibacterial soap is no more effective at removing bacteria or preventing illness than your standard, bubbly hand soap. In fact, any unique benefits of hand sanitizer have not been proven. Studies have been done with people being exposed to a type of common bacteria (in a controlled setting) and then washed their hands with antibacterial soap and regular soap. Results showed no difference between the two soaps. Some results even showed that antibacterial soap takes as long as 9 hours before showing any bacteria-killing effects. These results held true for 20 different species of bacteria. This is much longer than the standard advice of 20-second hand-washing!

While there is no difference between the effectiveness of the two soaps, there are differences in how they work. Standard soap loosens any bacteria or viruses off your hands (and body), which are then washed away. They do not kill germs, but rather remove them. Conversely, hand sanitizer contains certain chemicals that do kill bacteria (and halt their growth). Note that while standard soap targets both bacteria and viruses, antibacterial soap has no effect on viruses. They only target bacteria (hence their name). Therefore, hand sanitizer offers no protection against the coronavirus or any other virus. Another difference between these soaps is found in their degree of safety.

Harmful Chemicals in Antibacterial Sanitizers

The FDA has reviewed countless research on the safety profile of hand sanitizer and, in 2016, has banned 24 chemical ingredients found in these products. Manufacturers failed to prove that such ingredients were safe for humans, while studies show that they actually do more harm than good. The most common of these is triclosan, the active ingredient in roughly 75% of antibacterial soaps.

These chemical agents are considered “ingredients of concern” to environmental and regulatory groups. In animal studies, triclosan was found to alter hormone balance including lowered testosterone levels and thyroid hormones. While animal studies are not the same as human studies, the results still raise concerns. Other concerns with these chemical ingredients are their impact on aquatic environments (when these soaps wash down the drain and enter lakes and streams), as well as causing antibiotic resistance over time. The ever-increasing use of antibiotics causes bacteria to mutate to resist being killed. These resistant bacteria, therefore, survive any antibacterial hand-washing. Such bacteria are caused by any antibiotics, whether in medications or hand sanitizers. These findings, coupled with the fact that antibacterial soaps do not provide additional protection against illness, indicate that all we’re doing is exposing ourselves to unnecessary and harmful chemicals.

FDA Ban Offers Partial Protection

Since the FDA ban on several harmful ingredients found in hand sanitizers, manufacturers have revised their products and removed these ingredients. Problem solved, right? Well, not really. 

Unfortunately, triclosan is found in more than just hand sanitizers. It’s also found in workout clothing, kitchenware, office products, furniture, toys, deodorants, lotions, and cosmetics to prevent bacterial contamination. The FDA ban in 2016 does not apply to these products, making them freely available on store shelves. Further, these products (aside from deodorants, lotions, and cosmetics) do not have to list any chemicals on their labels or fine print. Oftentimes, companies will state that a product is antimicrobial as a sales tactic. Looking for the words “antimicrobial” or “microban” on product descriptions will help you avoid some triclosan-containing items, but not all. The ubiquitous nature of triclosan in a number of household items means that we have a high overall exposure even without antibacterial soaps. 

As with any toxic chemical or ingredient, total avoidance is often not possible in today’s world. Our best option is to limit our exposure. In order to do this, we must be aware of these chemicals and know where they are found. Limiting our exposure will prevent harmful chemicals from building up in our bodies, causing functional breakdown over time.

At a time when staying healthy is more important than ever, it is easy to follow popular advice on how to protect our families. Antibacterial soaps have always been viewed as more effective than standard soaps and this belief has only intensified during 2020. However, as we have seen, antibacterial soaps do not offer increased protection against illness. Further, they only act against bacteria and do not kill viruses (whereas standard soap removes both). Aside from their cleaning properties, antibacterial sanitizers contain harmful chemicals that impact health as well as harm rivers and lakes. Further, antibacterial agents lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria (the very process that occurs with the overuse of antibiotic medications). Granted, these chemicals have since been banned from hand sanitizers, however, sanitizers are still no more effective than standard soap and still do not kill viruses. Despite their ban in antibacterial soaps, exposure to these chemicals, specifically triclosan, is still a risk since it is found in several common household items. This is one example of many where the iconic phrase, “better living through chemistry” has led to unintended negative consequences.

As you protect yourself and your family from illness and the spread of germs, stick to the products your grandmother used: good ol’ standard soap. The FDA and the CDC recommend hand washing with soap over hand sanitizer as the best way to prevent the spread of bacteria and viruses.