Is there such a thing as too clean? The problem with antibacterial soaps

Baby Charlie demonstrates his taste-test approach to the world.

As a mother of a squirrely and inquisitive ten-month old boy, I know a thing or two about germs. To my horror and dismay, Charlie has licked, kissed, sucked and swallowed an astonishing array of objects, materials and surfaces in the short time he has lived on this earth. I’ve shuddered as I’ve watched him lick the back of an airplane seat, a hotel room carpet, one hundred tables at one hundred different restaurants and even our dog’s ear. No matter how closely I watch him or how quickly I move, it seems that I am always one second too late to prevent him from stuffing dog food, sand and bits of mulch into his mouth. Sometimes I catch the offending object in time and other times he swallows. I tell myself that his oral explorations are helping to build up immunities that will someday protect him against a range of illnesses, but last month he brought home a horrible chest cough that infected everyone in our family and eventually developed into pneumonia for my mother and me. All of this, in spite of the fact that I have antibacterial soap stashed in almost every room of the house.

One of the most surprising findings to come out of the recently released Mississippi State of the River Report was the pervasiveness of the chemical triclosan in the river and our bodies. Triclosan is commonly found in a wide variety of antibacterial hand soaps, dish soaps, lotions and even toothpastes. Though it was originally intended for use in health care facilities, triclosan has made its way into our homes in bottles of Dawn, Dial, Softsoap, Clearasil and dozens, if not hundreds, of other brands. The chemical ends up in the Mississippi and other rivers when we wash our hands and the water goes down the sink, through the pipes in our houses and municipal sewer systems, and into a wastewater treatment plant that discharges to the river. During the treatment process, sunlight and chlorine can cause triclosan in the wastewater to break down into dioxins and other carcinogens.  In the sediment of Lake Pepin, downstream of the Twin Cities metro area, dioxins derived from triclosan have increased by 200-300% since the 1960s.

Triclosan-derived compounds can disrupt thyroid and endocrine functions and threaten aquatic life in the Mississippi River. Worst of all, it turns out that antibacterial soaps aren’t even good for us. In fact, the Minnesota Department of Health and American Medical Association warn against using antibacterial products because they may contribute to the emergence of new resistant strains of diseases, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has determined that good old soap and water are just as effective at getting our hands and other parts clean. Even so, triclosan is present in 75% of all Americans over the age of five, according to a recent study.

So what is a mother like me to do with the 64 fluid ounces of antibacterial liquid hand soap just waiting in my cupboard? “We’re phasing it out!” I announced to my husband, after reading the State of the River Report last week. The report’s authors advise consumers to look for triclosan in the ingredients list of soaps, lotions and other personal care products and to avoid things labeled as antibacterial. After my husband and I use up our existing stockpile of hand soap, we’re switching to just plain soap. One thing is certain. The baby will continue to lick shoes, shopping carts and cat beds, and no amount of antibacterial soap can keep his world germ-free.

Learn more about the health of the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities metro area at