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BEACON Senior News - Western Colorado

Anti-microbial soaps are not as safe as you think

Oct 03, 2016 12:45PM ● By Scott Rollins

With the rise of hospital and health care-related infections there has been a needed push to improve the frequency and effectiveness of hand washing by health care workers. This has spilled over into the general consumer market with a plethora of anti-bacterial soaps and hand cleaners available. You might be surprised to learn that these anti-microbial soaps don’t actually work as well as you think and are linked to health risks, including cancer, developmental defects and hormone disruption.

List of ingredients

Hand and skin disinfection products include soaps, gels and foams containing alcohol, triclosan, or other antiseptic ingredients like chlorhexidine, chloroxylenol (or PCMX), hexachlorophene, iodophor compounds and quaternary ammonium compounds such as benzalkonium chloride.

Most of these chemicals bioaccumulate, which means they slowly build up in the tissues of the body, especially fat cells, where they remain as a constant reservoir.

Of course, industry producers are quick to point out a few studies that suggest the chemicals are safe; however, multiple research trials are piling up which show the contrary. And that doesn’t usually take into account the effects of bioaccumulation or synergy with other harmful chemicals. Are these common chemicals dangerous?

Triclosan was developed as a surgical scrub for medical professionals and is also used in pesticides. It’s found in about 140 consumer products, including liquid soaps, hand sanitizers, dishwashing liquids, shaving gels and even socks, workout clothes, pillows and toys. In recent years, it has been added to a host of products to kill bacteria and fungus and prevent odors. It can be found in everything from kitchen cutting boards to shoes, often packaged with labels that tout “antibacterial” properties.

Studies show that triclosan disrupts thyroid function and acts similar to the female estrogens and male androgens. Animal studies confirm liver cancer as a risk and show it affects breast cancer cells. It has been found to disrupt early growth and development, making it frightening to consider that one study found triclosan in the breast milk of 98 percent of the American mothers tested. Bacterial resistance is another problem resulting from the overuse of triclosan.

The rest of the mentioned chemicals have similar safety issues. The alcohols are clearly the safest, especially since they evaporate from the skin quickly, but even they are absorbed and measurable in the bloodstream. Ethanol is the same type of alcohol found in familiar alcoholic beverages, while isopropanol is found in rubbing alcohol. Our liver is well adapted to metabolize modest amounts of ethanol; thus, my research points to ethanol as the safest of the typical chemicals for use in hand cleansers.

What works to kill germs

The best of the standard anti-microbial hand hygiene products contain alcohol, usually ethanol or isopropanol, with both broad spectrum and immediate effects.

Washing with plain soap is helpful at physically removing a large number of the bacteria and viruses from the skin and using anti-microbial soaps is slightly better. However, neither comes close to the effectiveness of alcohol-based hand rubs.