Guest article by Sam Hadadi
Once upon a time, we weren’t always so afraid of dishing up the dirt. Our kids would happily roll around in mud, prodding and poking at worms, we often skipped on daily showers and our homes would sometimes have a layer of dust, without sending us into meltdown.
More recently though, we’ve all gone mad for the squeaky clean. Whether it’s lathering up with an antibacterial body wash, scrubbing hands with soaps promising to kill all bacteria, or hoovering up after the kids ten times a day.
Yet, all this begs the question: what is actually good for us? Is our obsession with staying clean actually doing more harm than good?
Earlier this week, a ruling by the Food and Drug Administration, said that there was no evidence that these soaps (which, if you’re like us, often take pride of place next to our kitchen sinks) were more effective than bog-standard soap and water. In fact, more worryingly, there’s no evidence to say that they’re even safe for use.
After growing fears around these antibacterial soaps, the FDA demanded that the hand wash manufacturers supplied them with evidence that they were safe, or even some stats to prove that they killed more bacteria than normal soap. Yet…these manufacturers didn’t. They couldn’t turn up the goods, or supply the stats, to show the safety of “long-term daily use”
Now, these antibacterial products will soon be banned from US shelves altogether (the FDA have given companies around a year). The sweeping new ruling will apply to soaps which contain any of 19 different chemical compounds, including triclocarbon, which lurks in some bar soaps, and triclosan, which is a common ingredient in liquid soaps.
While this new ban will only apply to the US, there are already partial bans across the EU for triclosan. Here in the UK, certain manufacturers, such as Unilever, have also pledged to cut back on the amount of damaging chemicals they use in their products.
Meanwhile, the Aussies are also sitting up and taking note – following the US ban, experts in Australia have advised shoppers to bin any antibacterial soaps. Of course, while this is all positive, it’s important that we stay aware and keep in mind what they can do to help us make wiser choices and decisions…
So, why all the fuss? Surely anything which kills nasties, germs and bacteria must be good for us, right?
Well, hang on a moment. Sit back and read this before you make up your mind…
For starters, there’s long been evidence that two of these chemicals in particular (triclobcarbon and triclosan) could affect our hormones1 and increase our risk of certain cancers and even change our natural resistance to bacteria.
You see, there’s a theory, known as the Hygiene Hypothesis, which suggests that when we stop coming into contact with all these bacteria – both good and bad – our immune system falls out of shape and can’t fight things off as well as it needs to.
Just this year, scientists also revealed that triclosan could affect our inner gut, messing with our bacteria (even the good kind) and microbiomes. It’s also been linked to kidney and liver damage, poor heart and muscle function2 and has even been touted as a carcinogen.
Previous research has also shown a connection between higher levels of triclosan in urine and allergy diagnoses in children.
Meanwhile, recent studies3 suggest that our growing reliance on these antibacterial washes could lead to a whole new generation of superbugs thriving. There’s also growing concern that it could affect the growing problem of antibiotic resistance (something which the World Health Organisation said is “an increasingly serious threat to global public health”)
When you think about this, it seems even scarier that our use of triclosan is so widespread, with some studies showing that it was in the urine of 75% of all people tested.
If you need more evidence that you shouldn’t be applying triclosan directly to your body, then consider this: it was first registered for use as a pesticide. Now, if that isn’t food for thought, then what is…?
As Professor Patrick McNamara, who has published research on antimicrobial soaps, said: “after these chemicals are used in our homes they go down the drain to wastewater treatment plants and eventually to the environment…
“In short, triclosan and triclocarbon present a risk towards propagation of antibiotic resistance,” he said. “Since they do not offer added benefits when washing hands, their use is not worth their environmental risk.
Hopefully, reading this will help you to make wiser, more informed choices when it comes to buying the family soap. Next time you’re stocking up, try to avoid being drawn in by the promises of “antibacterial” or “antimicrobial” washes, which supposedly kill 99.999999% of bacteria (which, by the way, includes the good kind!).
Instead, scan ingredient labels and avoid any of the ingredients we’ve mentioned. Don’t be afraid to simply wash your hands with everyday soap and water – it’s just as effective.
Lovers of green beauty can try shopping for more eco-friendly alternatives, made with pure and natural alternatives. If you’re really concerned, you could have a go at making your own natural, coconut oil-based hand soap by searching the many recipes online.
You should also stay wise to the fact that many of these soaps are packaged up in plastic bottles or containers, too – which are potentially just as dangerous for our health as the ingredients lurking inside! Many plastic bottles contain certain chemicals, which have been linked to health problems in children, while others could affect the way our cells function5. Some6 are even thought to wreak havoc on our hormones, which can cause infertility, reproductive issues, obesity and even increase our risk of cancer.
Also, when you consider that both the soap and the bottle could be a toxic combination, is it really worth the risk…?
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Sam Hadadi is an ex-BBC journalist and now a freelance writer specialising in fitness and food.