Sometimes, the effort to kill disease-causing microbes causes more trouble than it’s worth.
That’s why the Food and Drug Administration banned the use of triclosan, triclocarban and 17 other substances in antiseptic cleansers. The agency said manufacturers had not proven the long-term use of these ingredients is safe.
The FDA ruling came after years of uneasiness among many public health authorities regarding the use of antimicrobials in hand soap. These concerns covered not only whether these substances are safe for people washing with them but also the role such products may play in antibiotic resistance, or the increasing ineffectiveness of drugs designed to fight infection.
“Reduced use means more effectiveness of antibiotics developed to kill bacteria,” says Jane Guiltinan, ND, former dean of the School of Naturopathic Medicine at Bastyr University. “Exposure of bacteria to these antiseptics has led to a growth of ‘superbugs’ that are resistant to antibiotics. Our bodies are host to millions of bacteria, fungi and viruses, the vast majority of which are not harmful. Think of them as a team of allies helping you fend off harmful organisms that cause disease.”
Researchers are also concerned about the ecological impact of antimicrobials. More than 200 scientists and medical professionals issued The Florence Statement on Triclosan and Triclocarban, which states that not only do these substances “end up in the environment and have been detected in a wide variety of [settings] worldwide” but that they “bioaccumulate in aquatic plants and animals.”
Experts say the fear of doing without such soaps is unfounded. The FDA released a statement from Janet Woodcock, MD, director of the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research: “We have no scientific evidence that [antibacterial washes] are any better than plain soap and water. In fact, some data suggests that antibacterial ingredients may do more harm than good over the long term.”
Reza Antoszewska, NP-C, of the Legacy Cancer Institute in Portland, agrees. “The antibacterial soaps were marketed to the public appealing to fears rather than science,” she says.
Essential oils offer an alternative. Plants such as lavender, oregano, thyme and cedar contain volatile oils that can be used to provide antibacterial effects, says Guiltinan. Salt is effective against some streptococcal species, she adds, and some specific types of honey have been shown to be effective against MRSA (methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus).
If you have an infection, Antoszewska suggests using products as advised by your practitioner. “For normal living, regular old soap is good. We use simple, plant-based soaps such as Dr. Bronner for most things at home.”
Antoszewska points to the Environmental Working Group’s website (ewg.org) for databases of personal care products. “It can help to understand what is in the products we use and which ingredients may be or not be so great for our health,” she says. For antibacterial use in the kitchen, hydrogen peroxide in a spray bottle or vinegar can be helpful and non-toxic.
“If we kill off all the bugs, we may be removing those that help us as well,” says Guiltinan. “We are just beginning to understand the personal ecosystem that we inhabit, and are inhabited by.”