Antibacterial soap and hand sanitizer: What's the deal?

We've all heard claims that antibacterial soap is not good - but what's the real deal with antibacterial washes? There have been some recent developments that have changed the landscape a little. 

For decades, there were chemicals in antibacterial soap and hand sanitizer that were facing claims they were unhealthy. One of the most prevalent and dubious is triclosan. While human studies have been inconclusive on the impact of triclosan, animal studies have shown that exposure to triclosan and chemicals similar to it can act as hormone disruptors and are associated with some forms of cancer. The issues with triclosan don't even stop after they directly interact with your body. In wastewater treatment plants, triclosan has been found to interact with other substances to form dioxins, which are highly toxic according to the World Health Organization. After scientists in Minnesota found this connection, and dioxins in lakes throughout Minnesota, the state banned triclosan

After environmental and public health research had accumulated over decades, in 2010, the National Resources Defense Council sued the FDA for failing to address this issue. Six years later, the FDA erred on the side of caution and banned triclosan. 

Antibacterial soaps: Any upside?


Even more than these health impacts, most meaningful is the FDA's finding that antibacterial soaps do not offer any particular benefit. According to Janet Woodcock, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, “Consumers may think antibacterial washes are more effective at preventing the spread of germs, but we have no scientific evidence that they 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.” Moreover, recent research suggests that antibacterial soaps may act more like antibiotics than previously thought - they target certain molecular pathways, and resistance can develop, making antibacterial washes less effective over time. 

We have no scientific evidence that [antibacterial washes] are any better than plain soap and water.
— Dr. Woodcock, FDA

So, if triclosan is banned, can I go back to hand sanitizer?

Even leaving efficacy aside, the ban of triclosan may be insufficient. As we have discussed previously, the FDA can ban specific chemicals, like BPA or in this case triclosan, but then those chemicals are usually replaced in the manufacturing process with similar compounds from the same family or class. And that is what is now happening with triclosan. 

Our recommendations

1. At the very least, confirm that your antibacterial washes are free from triclosan (it can take some time for these to be phased out, and it's worth keeping in mind this ban just took effect this September). Ideally, also look out for triclosan's budding replacements: benzalkonium chloride, chloroxylenol, and benzethonium chloride.

2. Avoid antibacterial washes all together. Use good ol' soap and water. If you're on the go, use wipes that aren't antibacterial. We've got some options for liquid soap here and bar soap here.

3. Keep in mind that hand sanitizers were developed to kill bacteria (just like soap), and not to remove dirt from your hands. So, wash your hands, instead of spreading stuff around with hand sanitizer. This has the added perk of removing other toxins, like BPA from receipts, from your skin. 

4. If you can't live without hand sanitizer, choose alcohol-based options. See options below.

Healthier options for hand sanitizer



1. World Health Organization. Dioxins and their effects on human health.

2.  Brouillette, Monique. U.S. Bans Common Chemicals in Antibacterial Soaps. Scientific American.