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Antibacterial Soaps Are a Washout

Antibacterial Soaps Are a Washout

According to the Centers for Disease Control, washing your hands thoroughly with ordinary soap and warm water is one of the most effective ways to ward off infection.

September 22, 2007 —

Large soap companies like Colgate-Palmolive, Ivory, and Dial promote their antibacterial soaps as an effective way of keeping people healthy.  Dial states, “The trusted antibacterial formula will remove dirt and kill germs to help keep your family healthy.” 

Not so according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). In October 2005, a FDA advisory committee found that antibacterial soaps are no better than ordinary soap.  Marketing for anti-bacterial soap fails to mention that most common diseases are viral in nature and therefore not prevented by antibacterial products.  "When I buy an antibacterial product, in my mind, I'm thinking this is going to reduce my risk of infections,” said Elaine Larson, a professor of pharmaceutical and therapeutic research at Columbia University School of Nursing. “Consumers don't think about the fact that most of the infections healthy people get are cold, flu and diarrhea caused by viruses.”

<blockquote>"There is no evidence suggesting that the use of antibacterial soap containing 0.2% triclosan provides a benefit over plain soap in reducing bacterial counts and rate of infectious symptoms in generally healthy persons in the household setting.”
– Center for Disease Control, October 2005</blockquote>

The Soap and Detergent Association (SDA) argues that their products are safe and more effective than conventional soaps, because they kill germs instead of just washing them off and that consumers should have the right to choose their products in a free market. The global market for soap is projected to reach $6 billion by 2008.

Superbugs on the Loose?

In the United States, 75 percent of liquid soaps and nearly 30 percent of bar soaps now contain triclosan and other germ- fighting compounds.  Some researchers believe the prevalence of these chemicals can foster the growth of bacterial resistance. Triclosan acts by destroying enzymes in bacteria cell walls so they cannot replicate. Unfortunately, it apparently also targets the same enzyme as the antibiotic isoniazid, which is used to treat tuberculosis.

Several studies that question the effectiveness of anti-bacterial soaps in fighting common disease also cast doubt on theories that antibacterial soaps allow bacteria to develop a resistance and could give rise to superbugs.  The more immediate concern is Triclosan, the ingredient commonly used to kill the bacteria.  Triclosan is registered as a pesticide and as a health and environmental risk by the Environmental Protection Agency.


Few consumers are aware that the antibacterial components of soaps need to be left on a surface for about two minutes in order to work.  Most people are not this patient, and end up washing off the soap before the antibacterial ingredients do their job.  The directions on the bottle of Softsoap Antibacterial Liquid Hand Soap, made by Colgate-Palmolive, states, “Wash hands and rinse.”  There is no guidance regarding the length of time needed to keep the soap on a surface.

According to the CDC, washing your hands thoroughly with ordinary soap and warm water is one of the most effective ways to ward off infection.

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