Has the Antibacterial Craze Gone Too Far?

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We’ve become a nation of fanatical handwashers, hoping that regular scrubbing will protect us from viruses like colds and flus and harmful bacteria. Manufacturers worldwide have recognized a golden opportunity to exploit our germ-o-phobia, and have inundated the marketplace with not only antibacterial soaps, but shampoos, wipes, toothpastes, and deodorants. Antibacterial chemicals are even being incorporated into our clothing, kitchenware, and children’s toys.

Are antibacterial products safe?

Hand washing has been proven to reduce the number of bacteria we carry on our hands and to lessen the risk of some infectious diseases, but is there a downside to these chemical products? Maybe.

Many of these products contain the antibacterial and antifungal chemical triclosan, which is associated with several concerns:

  • Triclosan penetrates the skin and enters the bloodstream
  • In animal studies, but not yet in humans, triclosan has been shown to impact hormonal (primarily thyroid) function
  • High levels of exposure to triclosan have been associated with an increased incidence of hay fever in children
  • Triclosan can combine with chlorine in tap water to form chloroform, a potential carcinogen–although it’s unknown whether this poses any real danger
  • Perhaps most importantly, investigators are worried that triclosan usage could lead to increased bacterial resistance to both triclosan and antibiotics

Because it is such a commonly used agent, there is more data on triclosan than other antibacterial chemicals, but the issue of increased antibiotic resistance is concerning with all antibacterial products.

Should I avoid antibacterial products?

We don’t know the final answer to that question yet. The FDA is conducting an ongoing scientific investigation of triclosan, but to date, the agency has not issued any recommendation to consumer usage of products containing the chemical. In the meantime, studies have shown that antibacterial soaps are no more effective than plain soap and water at preventing infectious diseases and reducing the bacteria we carry on our hands. And soap and water are safe to use as much and as often as you wish.

What’s the right way to wash my hands, then?

Washing your hands with soap and water is a safe and effective way to help prevent the spread of germs, but only if you do it right. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) outline a five-step approach to washing your hands effectively:

  1. Wet
  2. Lather
  3. Scrub for 20 seconds
  4. Rinse
  5. Dry

This may not sound revolutionary, but time yourself the next time you wash–odds are you fall well short of the 20-second target! This link will take you to the CDC site for more information about handwashing.

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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

Any general advice posted on our blog, website, or app is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any medical or other advice. The One Medical Group entities and 1Life Healthcare, Inc. make no representations or warranties and expressly disclaim any and all liability concerning any treatment, action by, or effect on any person following the general information offered or provided within or through the blog, website, or app. If you have specific concerns or a situation arises in which you require medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified medical services provider.