cat at sink

With fears of H1N1 running rampant, it seems like everywhere you turn, there’s antibacterial gel, antibacterial soap and other antibacterial cleansers.  But are these cleansers really necessary, not to mention safe, or do they actually post health risks?  Today’s guest post addresses these questions.

Guest post by Woody McMahon, Sequoia Health and Fitness, Inc.

In an effort to fulfill the age old saying “cleanliness is next to Godliness,” the use of antibacterial soaps is on the rise. The liberal use of soap is a good thing, but antibacterial soaps present several major risks.

As early as 2005, researchers at Virginia Tech found that the active chemical ingredient in antibacterial soaps, triclosan, can cause two major health problems. First, consumers who use the soaps may be exposed to significant quantities of the cancer causing substance chloroform. Also, long term use of these soaps creates an unhealthy balance of antibiotic resistant bacteria on the skin. They found bacteria resistant to some of the more popular antibiotic drugs like chloramphenicol, ampicillin, tetracycline and ciprofloxacin.

Dr. Peter Vikesland, an environmental chemist at Virginia Tech had this to say about antibacterial soaps: “This is the first work that we know of that suggests that consumer products, such as antimicrobial soap, can produce significant quantities of chloroform. There are numerous potential exposure pathways that can be envisioned, such as inhalation and skin exposure, when using antimicrobial soaps to wash dishes or when taking a shower. There is also risk of exposure when using triclosan laden moisturizers as they may also react with chlorine in the water.”

What is Triclosan?

Triclosan is a synthetic antimicrobial agent found in a wide variety of products. Its broad spectrum, bacteria fighting ability has made it popular in an ever increasing number of personal care products, cosmetics, antimicrobial creams, acne treatments, lotions, hand soaps, and dish soaps. Triclosan goes under the trade name Microban®, when used in plastics and clothing and Biofresh® when used in acrylic fibers. Even though Triclosan is effective at killing bacteria, it is registered as a pesticide with the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pesticides are chemicals designed to kill some type of life form. The EPA considers triclosan a high risk for human health and the environment.

What is Chloroform?

When triclosan, the active ingredient in antibacterial soaps, reacts with the chlorine in the tap water, chloroform is created. Chloroform is a central nervous system depressant and cancer causing compound. The U.S. Department of Labor has strict guidelines when it comes to contact with chloroform. Chronic inhalation of chloroform may cause psychiatric and neurological symptoms, including depression, hallucinations and moodiness. In one study, liver enlargement was demonstrated in 17 of 68 workers exposed to chloroform at low levels for 1 to 4 years. Alcoholics are more at risk from chloroform because ethanol increases chloroform’s toxic effects.

Healthy Bacteria

The bacteria on your skin serve as a part of your skin’s natural defense mechanism. Your skin uses healthy bacteria to keep colonies of unhealthy bacteria at bay. Without the healthy bacteria, the unhealthy ones can take over and create infections and other skin problems. Destroy all the healthy bacteria with antibacterial soap and you set yourself up for big problems. The constant use of antibacterial soaps is similar to using antibiotics for every little cold or sneeze. All antibacterial products should be used sparingly so that resistant strains of bacteria do not develop. Using antibiotics only when necessary ensures they will remain effective when the need arises. 

Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria

When bacteria are exposed to long term, low doses of antibiotics, some of them can develop antibiotic resistance. Resistant bacteria must be treated with other, sometimes stronger antibiotics. In rare instances, there is no known medication that will kill the bacteria. It is wiser to use antibiotics sparingly and for shorter duration. The constant use of antimicrobials, as in the antibacterial soaps, creates a real long term health hazard; one that is easily avoidable with regular soap.

Living a healthier lifestyle is easy with one of Sequoia Health and Fitness, Inc.’s Fresh Start programs.  They provide the plan, implementation, motivation and accountability necessary for your success. To see all of their programs, visit  They offer a no-cost consultation.  For more information, please e-mail Woody McMahon at

15 Comments on Health Risks of Anti-Bacterial Soaps

  1. I’ve been in nursing for some time; of course healthcare workers need to use antimicrobial s on their “hands” consistently. Problems that can occur are with all the hype with antibacterials available in “soaps”!
    Fact: 90% of risky contact with the outside world is with the hands, thus it is appropriate to wash your hands with antibacterials (e.g.-after using the toilet, while cooking food and surfaces, shaking hands, using door handles, etc,). Antibacterial dishwater soap is also good, since it merely makes your eating material clean and cleans your hands from potential pathogens (undesirable bacteria & germs etc.)
    Trying to put this in perspective, an individual that may be a bit on the obsessive compulsive side will wash their hands dozens of times a day, they may think they have “full blown AIDS” because they shook hands with a stranger; they may also take several showers a day with antibacterial soaps. Certainly that is an extreme case scenario,; on the other hand, many people that want to be health conscious will erroneously think that taking a antibacterial soap into the shower or bath is healthy. WRONGO!!!
    A persons body needs to be covered with healthy bacteria (symbiotic-mutual benefit). Normal bacteria, on a persons’ skin, survives by the oils and other excretions from the human body as nutrients for its’ survival and reproduction. It causes no undesirable effects, you don’t even know it’s there! Think of it as a personalized ecosystem, because that is exactly what it is!
    In an ecosystem, if you strip it from its normal occupants, others will come in opportunistically, because there is no competition for the territory. Unfortunately, the new occupants may be really bad neighbors.

  2. Sheesh. My colgate toothpaste contains Triclosan! I’m so bacteria conscious though and I love anti-bacterial soap. You say, “consumers may be exposed to significant quantities” How likely is this maybe?

    • I didn’t realize toothpaste contained triclosan as well. How likely is exposure in significant quantities? I’d say it’s very likely, especially considering how ubiquitous these products are.

  3. I’d heard that, too, Bernadette, that the alcohol content in hand sanitizers isn’t potent enough to really kill bacteria, but just enough to contribute to create resistant bacteria.

    Daniela, it does sound scary, doesn’t it! Overuse of anti-bacterial cleaners and antibiotics has been a pet peeve of mine for a long time, which is why I decided to run this article.

  4. Thanks for bringing up this topic! Antibacterial soap is a marketing lie. Soap alone is an effective antibacterial, and nothing else is needed for basic washing. When doctors started washing their hands before treatments and surgery and between patients with plain old soap–not regularly practiced until about the Civil War–patients quit dying of infections in huge numbers. The next step up from soap in antibacterial protection is bleach or alcohol. The cute little chemicals in all the expensive, smelly and colorful cleaners people use isn’t potent enough to kill anything that is truly harmful, but is enough to give bacteria a resistance, and just adds to the burden of chemicals in the environment–and on your hands, no less, right into your mouth, eyes, nose, and onto your cat!

  5. Daniela, the active ingredient in most hand sanitizers is either ethyl alcohol or isopropyl alcohol. I’m not aware of health risks to adults from these components, but they are concentrated alcohol, so ingestion by small children could potentially lead to alcohol poisoning. In terms of contributing to the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria, hand sanitizers are no different than anti-bacterial soaps.

  6. Daniela, I think the health risks that come with using these products for our hands is the same as using them for anything else. Most, if not all, anti-bacterial soaps, contain Triclosan.

    I’d add another caution to Woody’s article, especially when it comes to the gel type hand sanitizers. I’d caution against touching your pets after you’ve used them until your hands are completely dry. You don’t want the gel to rub off on your pets and then they lick it off their fur.

    I don’t use anti-bacterial soaps at all, plain soap and warm water accomplish the same thing. I will, on occasion, use the hand sanitizers if I don’t have access to anything else, but I’m looking into natural alternatives for those.

  7. Woody, you mention the antibacterial soap is not good for shower or washing dishes. But what about washing hands? Bad, too?

    Are all antibacterial soaps the same?

  8. Glad you enjoyed the post and the photo, Debbi. It makes sense that overuse of these anti-bacterial soaps would weaken, rather than strengthen the immune system.

  9. The picture, alone, is good for a healthy laugh. Pretty much says it all.

    I notice that people who are obsessive with the antibacterial soaps are usually the ones who get sick the most often. Too much of a lot of things, isn’t good for you. Good post.

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