Guru Kate: Can antibacterial soap cause cancer?

Some soaps contain an antibacterial agent called triclosan. The organic compound has been rumored to make free radicals (tissue-damaging atoms) in your body’s cells, which causes cancer.

The ironic part about triclosan and soap is that the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for triclosan says that when it comes in contact with skin, wash it off with soap and warm water. It’s fairly assured that if you’re already washing your hands, that step is taken care of. Safe!

Well, except that triclosan’s a banned Occupational Safety and Health Administration substance, because it can cause liver disease. However, humans are essentially unaffected by small doses of triclosan, at least when it’s applied to the skin.

Oh, and if you eat it, you need to seek medical attention.

We aren’t talking about washing your mouth with soap here — some toothpastes have triclosan in them as an active ingredient, because it can prevent gum disease.

Rest assured, though. The MSDS notes that low exposure in humans rarely causes liver disease, and the Food and Drug Administration allows for minimal human consumption.

Human consumption. This is quite different from fish consumption, which is inevitable when you deal with watersheds, rinsing of antibacterial soap and leaching triclosan into local streams and rivers.

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Triclosan is not biodegradable and is “very toxic to aquatic organisms.” Overall, the bottom line of antibacterial soap is that it is not harmful to humans or their livers, but there is a potential for it to hurt our fishy friends.

Besides, there isn’t any assurance that antibacterial soap is any better than regular hand wash that utilizes sodium laureth sulfate, a common detergent.

In an article by Jane Zhang, Wall Street Journal reporter, the FDA found no link between using antibacterial soap and a decrease in infectious disease.

In fact, some experts consider antibacterial soap an indirect concern for humans. This is because they kill off the susceptible bacteria but leave the strong ones behind, and only the strong ones survive to give rise to a new series of antibacterial-resistant strains. Yikes!

When it comes down to it, using regular old soap (sans triclosan or other antibacterial agents) will do the job just fine.