Antibacterial soaps in the backcountry


I try not to be one of those people who buy into every alarmist headline about how common products will poison me. Over the years, consumer safety scares have come and gone with predictable regularity. Eggs were forbidden cholesterol-bombs for a while. Caffeine was blamed for just about every possible malady, and then (at least partially) exonerated. And diet soda takes a new hit every few weeks, it seems. 

With guarded skepticism, then, I’ve been following the long-lived debate over another product: antibacterial sanitizers and soaps. Their popularity was reinforced to me last month on a Grand Canyon river trip. Official recommendations for avoiding the Norovirus outbreak that was circulating among some groups involved lots of hand sanitizing.

The common denominators in many sanitizing products and soaps are the compounds triclosan or triclocarban, which have been in use since the mid-twentieth century in a wide range of consumer and industrial products. However, the 1990s saw an increase in development and marketing of antibacterial soaps and hygiene products. Soon after, disturbing reports about possible negative health effects, including hormone disruption, began surfacing, as well as questions about whether such products were any more effective than ordinary soap. These reports were well publicized. Around the same time, however, outbreaks of scary epidemics such as bird flu fueled hyperawareness of cleanliness. Hand sanitizer dispensers showed up everywhere. Most K-12 teachers I know keep large containers of the stuff in their classrooms. 

Still, new negative effects are being found. Recent studies link triclosan to muscle weakness in mice, and many researchers, including some at my institution, Arizona State University, have found significant concentrations of triclosan residue in rivers and streams. Bad news for all of us trying to avoid the Norovirus on the Colorado! Both the FDAand the EPA are revising their consumer statements in light of ongoing research. Industry representatives, of course, insist that their antibacterial products are safe. 

This debate is especially perplexing because it pits our concerns about infection and disease against fears of more insidious toxicity and pollution. Nobody wants to spread harmful pathogens, but will the products designed to kill them ultimately do more harm than good? Consumer scrutiny, coupled with that of government watchdog agencies, may provide part of the answer. Already, products are being advertised as “triclosan free,” just as earlier “BPA free” products (including backpacker-popular Nalgene water bottles) quickly appeared following negative reports about that ingredient. Some common sense is in order, too. Regular soap is known to kill disease- carrying germs. Equally effective biodegradable varieties are less harmful to watersheds. As the evidence continues to mount about triclosan and triclocarban, there is no reason why we can’t stay clean and keep our eye on the research also.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Jackie Wheeler teaches writing and environmental rhetoric at Arizona State University.

Image courtesy Flickr user Andrew Braithwaite

Paul Tanger
Paul Tanger
Sep 12, 2012 10:28 AM
The active ingredient in most sanitizers is not triclosan but 60% or higher alcohol..a simple, effective and safe sanitizing agent. For soaps, it is harder to avoid, but for sanitizers I think it is rare to see triclosan in them.
Paul Tanger
Paul Tanger
Sep 12, 2012 10:32 AM
I think your photo is misleading. From Purell's website:
Do PURELL® products contain triclosan?
No. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations do not allow the use of triclosan as an active ingredient in "leave on" products like hand sanitizer. PURELL hand sanitizer products do not contain triclosan.
Stephanie Paige Ogburn
Stephanie Paige Ogburn Subscriber
Sep 12, 2012 10:35 AM
Hi Paul, thanks for the comment on the photo -- I chose that illustration, not Ms. Wheeler, so I'll take the blame for that mixup. - Stephanie P Ogburn, online editor.
Arnie Peterson
Arnie Peterson
Sep 13, 2012 11:49 AM
Two big questions with antibacterial soaps are, 1) are they more effective than regular soap? -- I haven't heard that they are, and 2) will all of these antibiotics washed down the drain change the environment? -- hospitals have problems with antibiotic resistant bacteria. I suspect resistant bacteria will start appearing in other places now.
It is also important not to confuse alcohol-based sanitizers, such as may be used on river trips, with antibacterial soaps. These are very different products.
jackie wheeler
jackie wheeler Subscriber
Sep 13, 2012 12:46 PM
Paul Tanger and Arnie Peterson are correct that many hand sanitizer products contain alcohol, not Triclosan or Triclocarban, as their active ingredient. Purell (one of the most common brands) is alcohol based. Thanks for calling me on it -- I should have made this distinction clearer. However, alcohol-free products are a growing segment of the hand-sanitizer market. Some of these contain Triclosan. See this example marketed to children:[…]/hand-sanitizer-alcohol-free.html

Jackie Wheeler
Evie Dawson
Evie Dawson
Jan 30, 2014 10:14 PM
There is also a good news. A few known companies like The Body Shop, Staples and Defense Soap have phased out triclosan from their product. Please find the story about the bad health effects of antibacterial soap that might have triclosan as an active ingredient :