Disclaimer: this post is inspired by one of Wellness mama (whom I’m a big fan of), also describing the dangers of antibacterial soaps. I have used the same studies as her but tried to see it from the perspective of India.
Dettol soap is probably the most popular hand washing soap here in India. At least you can’t go long without either hearing their commercials or coming across one of their soap. A Scandinavian colleague of mine always puts an additional piece of soap in the office bathroom, because she says she’s ‘not gonna use that toxic stuff’. She’s referring to the Dettol soap. I don’t use commercials soap by principle, because I don’t trust their transparency and sincerity, but after looking a little closer at Dettol, I couldn’t agree more with my colleague’s choice of words – toxic stuff. Let me walk you through it.
What’s inside a Dettol soap
To understand what’s so bad about Dettol soap, we need to understand what it contains. Later I will only focus on a few of the ingredients, but if you want to read more on the toxic ingredients found in many commercial soaps, you can start by reading Commercial vs. Handmade soaps. Let’s look at a typical Dettol soap:
Sodium Palmate – saponified palm oil. Like I’ve mentioned in my earlier post, commercially derived Palm oil is very damaging to the environment and destroys the habitats it’s harvested from. It’s used in soap because it’s cheap and makes a super hard and moisturizing bar.
Sodium Palm Kernelate – saponified palm kernel oil
Aqua – water
Glycerin – what they sometimes refer to as added moisturizer. Note that Glycerin wouldn’t need to be added if it had been handmade soap because real soap contains glycerin naturally
Perfume – manufacturing a scent takes up to 3000 different chemical compounds. Most of these are made from synthetic compounds derived from Petroleum, whereof many are known toxins linked to a number of serious health issues and hormonal disruptions. Many of them are still untested for possible harm
Benzyl Salicylate – a chemical compound that helps scent last longer. Can cause irritation on the skin. Listed as an allergenic by European Cosmetic Directive
Butylphenyl methylpropinal – fragrance compound
Citronellol – a natural scent additive to add citrus or floral notes. Occurs naturally
Geraniol – fragrance compound, that also occurs naturally
Hexyl Cinnamal – fragrance compound
Coumarin – fragrance compound associated with allergy and contact dermatitis
Linalool – fragrance compound
Palm Acid – a byproduct of palm oil
Sodium Chloride – salt
Tetrasodium EDTA – is a preservative and a known carcinogen (agent known to cause cancer), and is also a penetration enhancer – which means it breaks down the skins natural barrier, making it easier for harmful chemicals to penetrate the tissue and even enter the blood
Ethidronic Acid – an inorganic acid used as a binding agent
Triclocarban – antibacterial agent
Titanium Dioxide – added for the white color
Sodium Carbonate – also known as ‘Washing soda’. Its similar to Baking soda in composition, but is caustic and used as a cleaning agent.
Sodium Sulfate – sodium salt often used in detergents
There’s a number of ingredients on this list that is of concern. I will focus on Triclocarban (in solid soap) or Triclosan (in liquid soap), which is supposed to be the antibacterial component in Dettol. Before we get deeper into that, it’s important to understand something much more basic – there is no proof available that Antibacterial soap is anyway is more effective than normal soap, or even natural handmade soap.
Antibacterial vs. Normal soap
The biggest selling point of Dettol soap is that it’s antibacterial – like it says, it kills 99.9 % of bacteria! We are made to believe that it’s superior to normal soap and will protect us better against disease and infections. Though this doesn’t seem to be the case. Last year the FDA (US Food and Drug Association) released its final ruling on the effectiveness and safety of Antibacterial soap:
Consumers may think antibacterial washes are more effective at preventing the spread of germs, but we have no scientific evidence that they are any better than plain soap and water. In fact, some data suggests that antibacterial ingredients may do more harm than good over the long-term.
Data suggested that long-term exposure to certain active ingredients used in antibacterial products — for example, triclosan (liquid soaps) and triclocarban (bar soaps) — could pose health risks, such as bacterial resistance or hormonal effects.
This highlights two important points: 1) there’s no proof Antibacterial soap will protect you better than normal soap 2) even if it did, health concerns linked to ingredients such as Triclosan or Triclosaban might outweigh the benefits. If you want to read the final ruling of FDA, you can find it here. Though, this is not the only points to keep in mind. Let me explain.
There’s clean and there’s too clean
Bacteria might be associated by many as something bad, but we are becoming only more aware of how incredibly important bacteria is for us to stay healthy. Especially the gut bacteria play a crucial role in keeping the body’s systems in balance. In recent years studies have shown that people with less varied gut bacteria are much more prone to getting sick. We receive this bacteria through a number of ways throughout our lives. For bonus info, I can tell you that one of them is through birth, which ultimately means that children born by C-section often lack this gut bacteria diversity. Though, we also obtain these bacterias through our life, by the different exposures we come in contact with (food, environment etc.). Now, it’s important to understand that while it is the good bacteria that keep us healthy, being exposed to bad bacteria is essential for our body to build up our immune system. Essentially that’s what vaccines do – they expose us to a tiny amount of the disease, to make our own body produce antibodies to protect us against future exposure.
So what happens when we use antibacterial agents? Just like when we use antibiotics, strong antibacterial agents don’t distinguish between the good and bad bacteria. It simply wipes out all of it – good and bad. I absolutely agree that there can be situations where this is necessary (for example after visiting a hospital or other places where dangerous bacteria might occur or in the case of using antibiotics to fight dangerous disease), but if used on a daily basis we diminish the natural exposure we need to grow a strong immune response and bacterial diversity to stay healthy. This post, for example, shows some of the research done, linking the use of Antibacterial agents to immune-related sensitivities:
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University published a study in the 2012 Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology where they found that children with high levels of triclosan, a common component in everything from cleaning products and toothpaste to pizza cutters and countertops—anywhere “antibacterial” properties are marketed), were at significantly higher risk for developing seasonal allergies, food, drug, and insect allergies, hay fever, and other immune-related sensitivities.
Superbugs and drug resistance
Again it’s important to understand what happens inside our bodies. Most diseases occur when an imbalance in the body in combination with exposure to a virus or bacteria, makes a favorable environment for a bad bacteria or virus to go into Overgrowth. For example, a yeast infection that many women might have experienced happens when the balance of the natural bacteria is disturbed, causing overgrowth of yeast (which occurs naturally). This can happen when using harsh soap that removes all the bacterias, or overuse of Anti-biotics that essentially does the same. Now, this is important to understand, because by using antibacterial agents, we might be making a favorable environment for so-called “superbug” to develop, and in combination with the growing drug resistance (caused by overexposure to for example antibiotics), we are looking at nothing less than a health emergency. Recent news report on ABC new explains:
Indeed, recent research suggests these products may encourage the growth of “superbugs” resistant to antimicrobial agents, a problem when these bacteria run rampant, turning into a dangerous infection that cannot be treated with available medication.
Similar growth of drug-resistant strains has already occurred with antibiotics. The overuse and misuse of antibiotics has led to several drug-resistant microbes, such as streptococcus pneumonia and strains of E. coli.
Dr. Stuart Levy, president of the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics and a professor of molecular biology at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, believes antibacterial soaps are dangerous.
“Triclosan creates an environment where the resistant, mutated bacteria are more likely to survive,” says Levy, who published a study on the germicide two years ago in the journal Nature.
Charles Rock, a researcher at St. Jude Children’s Research Hosptial in Memphis, Tenn., also published work in Nature last month supporting the resistance theory.
“The use of triclosan in these products will lead to the emergence of resistance,” he predicts. “There is no strong rationale for [its] use.”
Increased risk of infection
Oh the irony, but some studies show that use of Triclosan causes a build-up of Staph aureus bacteria in nasal passages and other parts of the body, which leads to higher risk of infection. Read the full study here,
Triclosan, a chemical found in the majority of anti-bacterial hand and dish soaps, was picked up in the nasal passages of 41 percent of the adults sampled by researchers at the University of Michigan. Those with triclosan in their noses were more likely to also have colonies of the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus (commonly referred to as “staph”).
Most importantly though, was that researchers found a potential link between the two: Triclosan appears to help the staph bacteria grab hold and bind to proteins in the nose.
“I think we have been seeing a lot of this over the past few years, that perhaps these antimicrobial soaps are doing more harm than good,” said Dr. Melissa Osborn, an infectious disease specialist with MetroHealth Medical Center. “We know that one of the reasons that staph aureus colonizes some people’s noses is that it adheres to some of the proteins in the nose. Triclosan actually promoted that adhesion.”
Having staph aureus in your nose — which is the case for about 30 percent of people — is not necessarily a problem in and of itself, but is a risk factor for getting other infections such as surgical site infections, boils, catheter site infections in people on dialysis and diabetic foot ulcers.
This is just a fraction of the research emerging on the dangers linked with the use of antibacterial soaps, gels, cleaning products etc. Studies also show that chemicals like Triclosan disrupts hormones as well as is of major environmental concern. So what should we go? For me it’s simple. Soap is not the issue – washing your hands with normal soap is proven to cut a number of a dangerous disease in half. Wash your hands and body in good old, natural soap. As for Hand sanitizers, where water is not available, there is a number of DIY natural versions out there. The other day I saw my colleague squeeze a lemon into his hand, which in fact is also antibacterial. I will be sure to follow this post up with one on how to make you’re very own, safe antibacterial hand sanitizer.