Are Antibacterial Products Really Better For Your Health?

Last week it was announced that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will finally be making a determination on whether antibacterial soap is causing more health harm than good among consumers.  I say “finally” because it’s taken four decades for the FDA to take action. The main catalyst for this move is the use of the chemical triclosan, the germ-killing ingredient found in 75% of the antibacterial products sold in the U.S., including soap, body wash, detergents, cosmetics, children’s clothing, toys and even toothpaste!

I’ve never been a fan of antibacterial products. There’s no  evidence that these products are actually effective, and the FDA’s own website states, “the agency does not have evidence that triclosan in antibacterial soaps and body washes provides any benefit over washing with regular soap and water.”

Yet, more and more I see the youngest patients in my office stocked with their tiny child-size bottle of sanitizer; complete with the bright colors, fruity fragrances, cartoon-characters on the label, conveniently attached to their wrist, zipper or backpack. I’ll ask them about it, just to get their take. “It keeps the germs away,” they say. They’ve grown accustomed to using these products at home and school, and their parents have come to believe that products that say “antibacterial” are superior and good for the family.

The alarm bells around triclosan have been going off for years. It’s been linked to disruptions in hormonal activity in animals. I’ve often suspected the use of this chemical (along with the widespread use of many others) to be a contributing factor in the rise of early puberty in our girls. And, boys are not immune to the hormone altering affects; in boys estrogen mimickers produce the opposite effect, delaying puberty (especially in obese boys).

Triclosan has also been shown to reduce circulating thyroxine in rats. Lack of this circulating thyroid hormone can lead to hypothyroidism, a condition which has reached epidemic rates.  Chances are you, or someone you know, has been diagnosed with hypothyroidism, and if so, you’ll recognize the symptoms: fatigue, thinning hair, depression, cold hands and feet, and difficulty losing weight.

As if that weren’t disturbing enough, the real danger of these antibacterial products may be the link to antibiotic resistance and superbugs. Antibacterials like triclosan don’t “kill” germs as you might expect, but rather “alter” them by interfering with the bacterial enzyme through penetration of the bacterial wall.  Since bacteria can evolve very quickly, microbes have the potential to develop enzyme systems that are resistant to triclosan (and antibiotics) over time. Could this be why antibiotic-resistant bacteria are becoming more widespread and their numbers are growing?

Regardless of whether your antibacterial products include triclosan on the label or not, they are still full of chemicals. And regardless of whether they are ingested or used topically, these chemicals are still absorbed into the body with each and every use. My recommendation is, and has always been, plain soap and water.

More importantly, don’t be so afraid of germs. Your body’s immunity is like a muscle, it must be used to remain strong. If your body’s immune system is strong, it will do the work to protect you from infection. Parents, let the kids play in the mud, eat dirt, put their fingers in their mouths.  Heck, the worst that could happen would be they need a bath and some good ol’ soap and water.

Dr. Tiffany