Plain soap and water

mom and son washing hands

Cropped image. Cade Martin and Dawn Arlott, PIXNIO. CC license.

How many times a day do doctors wash their hands? Dozens, perhaps. And they encourage us to follow effective hand-washing techniques as well.

“But, the conversation shouldn’t end there”, according to Dr. Paula Kim, M.D. with Beaumont Health, clinical professor at Wayne State University’s School of Medicine, and associate professor at Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine. She says, “The next questions are: What type of soap is used at home? Is it an antibacterial? Or is it plain soap and water?”

The Centers for Disease Control, American Medical Association, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and others overwhelmingly encourage people to use non-antibacterial (plain) soap and warm water, and to rub hands together for a minimum of 20 to 30 seconds.

Why plain soap? Isn’t an antibacterial product more effective? Surprisingly, no. In 2013 the FDA challenged manufacturers of over-the-counter antibacterial hand and body soaps to prove that their products are more effective at killing germs than plain soap and water. And they couldn’t do it.

“There’s no data demonstrating that these drugs provide additional protection from diseases and infections. Using these products might give people a false sense of security,” says Theresa M. Michele, M.D., of the FDA’s Division of Nonprescription Drug Products.

Due to health risks, including bacterial resistance, the FDA banned manufacturers from using almost all antibacterial chemicals, including the widely used triclosan. Manufacturers of hand and body soaps (soaps intended to be used with water) have until September 2017 to switch their formulations. The new rule affects most of the liquid hand soaps and bar soaps currently on the market. It does not affect hand sanitizers or hand wipes.

Health risks

The FDA is heeding the warning of research showing that the use of triclosan can lead to bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, making them ineffective. The agency also expressed concern over triclosan’s potential hormonal effects. According to the FDA, “…recent studies have demonstrated that triclosan showed effects on the thyroid, estrogen, and testosterone systems in several animal species, including mammals, the implications of which on human health, especially for children, are still not well understood.”

Other organizations, such as the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA), have found — in addition to concerns about endocrine activity — triclosan carries risks for the reproductive system and brain development.

Exposure

We likely use at least one product every day that contains triclosan. Antibacterial chemicals are added to thousands of products, including household cleaners, cosmetics (including deodorant, toothpaste and mouthwash), clothing, furniture, lunchboxes, backpacks, food packaging, kitchen utensils, children’s toys and more. But the chemical doesn’t simply stay in those products. Researchers found triclosan in household dust, in streams and other waterways, in wildlife, in human plasma and breast milk, and in drinking water.

Indeed the multitude of exposure paths was a driving factor behind the FDA’s original inquiry. According to a September 2016 FDA Consumer Update factsheet, Antibacterials? You Can Skip It – Use Plain Soap and Water, “…people’s long-term exposure to triclosan is higher than previously thought, raising concerns about the potential risks associated with the use of this ingredient over a lifetime.”

Consumers

Many people use antibacterial soaps without knowing they are using an OTC drug. Shoppers should watch out for the word “antibacterial” or the phrase “kills germs”. Generally, we find these words and phrases reassuring. But remember that it isn’t necessary to kill all the germs, but to simply remove them with plain soap and water. Then wash them down the drain. A drug facts label on a soap or body wash is a sign a product contains antibacterial ingredients. As Dr. Kim always encourages her patients, “Read the label on anything you buy. Read what’s in it!”

More information

You don’t have to settle for toxic triclosan in your household cleaners either. Dr. Kim suggests her patients to “use natural things if possible, such as vinegar and water.” White vinegar is a food-grade anti-microbial that can kill germs on surfaces. Or look for Clean Well brand soaps and sanitizers, which use thyme oil as the active ingredient to kill germs. Some of the Seventh Generation brand cleaning products include the Clean Well technology also.

– Melissa Sargent, Environmental Health Educator with LocalMotionGreen at Ecology Center. For more information, you can email her at melissas@ecocenter.org or visit http://www.ecocenter.org/lmg.

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