Are Antimicrobials Making Your Soap Less Safe?

Are Antimicrobials Making Your Soap Less Safe?

If you’d bet the trifecta at the 2016 Kentucky Derby, you would have won big if you picked Always Dreaming, Looking At Lee, and Battle of Midway. But you won’t win big if you bet on triclosan—a common antimicrobial that for decades has been used in household cleaning and personal care products like mouthwash and soaps. It, along with 17 other antimicrobials, was banned by the FDA in 2016. Unfortunately, even if it and others are removed from consumer products, unregulated ones are replacing them. And triclosan itself may still show up in things like plush toys, pool wings, pacifier pockets, building blocks, even craft supplies like markers and scissors–no label required. That’s because the FDA doesn’t oversee these kinds of consumer products. 

What makes triclosan and other antimicrobials so dangerous? Besides their hormone-disrupting powers, researchers at the Institute of Microbiology and Infection at the University of Birmingham in the UK made this unexpected finding: Bacteria that mutated to become resistant to quinolone antibiotics—used as the last line of defense against antibiotic-resistant infections—also became resistant to triclosan. And conversely, triclosan may lead to resistance to essential antibiotics.

Meet the antimicrobials that work without the risk of making it impossible to treat life-threatening infections: Soap, water and 60 percent alcohol-based sanitizers. Washing your hands with soap and water for 15 seconds will drop bacterial counts by 90 percent; another 15 seconds and you’re down by 99.9 percent!

Medically reviewed in March 2020.

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