Antibacterial washes and wipes seem to be in every classroom nowadays. Media, public health announcements and teachers are constantly admonishing our kids to wash their hands to prevent the spread of illness, but could this constant use of antibacterial chemicals actually be causing more harm than good? And how does it correlate to autism?
I am definitely a fan of hand washing, but in my house we use old-fashioned castile or coconut oil soap. In fact, even the FDA back in 2005 concluded that washing your hands properly with regular soap and water is just as effective at ridding your hands of potentially hazardous pathogens as antibacterial soaps. With waterless hand sanitizer, even more of the chemical ingredients are absorbed through the skin. When my kids were young, I sent my own homemade, natural, antibacterial waterless sanitizer to school with them, so that they would not be forced to use the commercial ones provided by the teachers.
So what is the harm in antibacterial washes?
- Muscle weakness/impaired mitochondrial function. Over 76% of antibacterial washes contain the ingredients triclosan and/or triclocarban. (These toxins can also be found in many toothpastes, deodorants, antiseptic and burn creams, dish soaps, dehumidifiers, floor mops, flooring, food warmers, and mouthwashes as well as plastic kitchen utensils, computer keyboards and mice, shoes and sandals, and toys labeled as “antibacterial” or using the trademark Microban®.) They are rapidly absorbed through the skin and have also been shown to inhibit both skeletal and cardiac muscle function at a cellular level. Mitochondria are the powerhouse or energy production source within our cells. Babies and children who have mitochondrial weakness or vulnerability who use these chemicals can suffer mitochondrial dysfunction or impairment because these chemicals interfere with the fluidity of the inner mitochondrial membrane.
- Excitotoxins that cause death of brain cells. Studies of triclosan at U.C. Davis found that it attaches itself to the receptor molecules on the surface of brain cells and causes the calcium levels inside the cell to rise, so that the cells become overexcited, resulting in cellular death. This overexcitation can impact mental development and behavior, particularly among those most vulnerable—children with developmental delays and autism.
- Allergies and altered brain function. Studies have shown that memory T-cells, critical to normal immune system function, develop by contact with pathogens. An immune system without proper exposure is at greater risk for allergies. For this reason, the CDC has issued warnings that overuse of antimicrobial washes lead to allergies. Normal immune development is also integrally related to normal neurological development. In fact, germ free mice, born by cesarean section and raised in “clean rooms,” had altered expression of three genes involved in mood, anxiety behavior, learning and memory. Studies have also shown triclosan to depress the central nervous system.
- Autism incidence correlation. The impact of these chemicals on the genes whose expression correlates with autism is why U.C. Davis researcher Dr. Isaac Pessah named triclosan (and related compounds with similar properties) as a prime suspect among environmental factors that might cause autism. Through epigenetics (the study of how toxins in our environment affect gene expression) we know that the genetic expression that correlates with susceptibility to autism can be directly altered by toxic exposures that impact expression of these genes.
- Dangerous hormonal changes. Both triclosan and triclocarban have been shown to be endocrine disruptors. Triclosan can bind to receptor sites in the body and block normal thyroid function. Endocrine disruptors have been correlated to childhood obesity, type II diabetes and a host of other chronic health problems. Triclocarban has been found to have a new type of hormone altering action. It reacts with and enhances the effects of testosterone and estrogen already being produced in the body. Even one bath with soaps containing these chemicals provides the same body weight dose of chemicals given to rats in experiments that demonstrated significant hormonal changes. These alterations can lead to reduced fertility in men and woman, early puberty in girls, and increased testosterone that has been associated with heightened aggressive behavior in boys.
- Bacterial resistance. Use of antibacterial washes can lead to development of resistant bacteria. They kill off friendly bugs that protect us from infection. The CDC did a study that found triclosan in urine of 75% of Americans aged 6 and older. Those levels undoubtedly have a correlation to the increase in strains of resistant bacteria on and in our bodies and our environment.
- Alcohol hazard. In addition to the surge in alcohol poisoning cases among teens abusing hand sanitizers reported by hospitals last spring, small children can also be at risk. While not looking for a “high,” hand sanitizers with “goofy grape” and other tasty sounding flavors have been ingested by children, resulting in acute poisoning. Additionally, since we know that young children are apt to put their hands in their mouth, the high content of alcohol in many antibacterial washes can be dangerous to them. According to toxicology expert Dirk Lackenmeier, even a small amount of ethyl alcohol from hand wash in the mouth can cause disorientation, headache, stomach ache and dizziness in a child, and is also associated with increased risk of oral cancer. In addition, if a child has cuts, the alchohol will be much more readily absorbed directly into the blood stream.
- Other additive hazards. Many washes also contain dyes and other ingredients that can be absorbed through the skin and cause allergic reactions and sensitivities that lead to behavioral reactions in children.
- Harm to our environment and future generations. Triclosan is now being found in breast milk and in waterways and having an effect on the ability of fish to swim in a normal manner. Americans dump more than 1 million pounds of triclosan and triclocarban into oceans, rivers, lakes and streams every year.
So if they don’t provide benefit and carry so much potential harm, why use them? I highly recommend you check the labels on any product that is labeled “antimicrobial” or “antibacterial,” and add triclosan and triclocarban to your list of banned items, especially if you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant.
I sent a small travel bottle of castile soap with my children so they wouldn’t have to use the antibacterial soaps at school, but teachers are lining up students and pumping chemical-laden, waterless hand sanitizer onto their hands now. I learned a recipe for alternative, homemade, waterless hand sanitizer to send to school with my kids from my pediatrician, Dr. Lawrence Rosen. For that recipe, click here. I have sent this homemade hand sanitizer in a small travel bottle to school with a note saying my children were sensitive to the chemicals in commercial sanitizer. To me, the peace of mind was worth any risk involved in being labeled that “nutty health mom.”
1. Ahn K.C., Pessah I., et al. In vitro biologic activities of the antimicrobials triclocarban, its analogs, and triclosan in bioassay screens: receptor-based bioassay screens. Environmental Health Perspect. 2008 Sep;116(9):1203-10. doi: 10.1289/ehp.11200. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18795164
2. Chen J., Ahn K.C., et al. Triclocarban enhances testosterone action: a new type of endocrine disruptor? Endocrinology. 2008 Mar;149(3):1173-9. Epub 2007 Nov 29. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18048496
3. Moss T., Howes D., Williams F.M. Percutaneous penetration and dermal metabolism of triclosan. Food Chem Toxicol. 2000 Apr;38(4):361-70. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10722890
4. Skirrow Rachel C., et al. The bactericidal agent triclosan modulates thyroid hormone-associated gene expression and disrupts postembryonic anuran development. Aquatic Toxicology Volume 80, Issue 3, 1 December 2006, Pages 217–227 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0166445X06003407
5. Veldhoen N, Cherednichenko G, et al Triclosan impairs excitation–contraction coupling and Ca2+dynamics in striated muscle. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America Contributed by Bruce D. Hammock, July 13, 2012 http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/08/08/1211314109.abstr
6. Newton AP, Cadena SM, Effect of triclosan (TRN) on energy-linked functions of rat liver mitochondria. Toxicol Lett. 2005 Dec 30;160(1):49-59. Epub 2005 Jul 14. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16023799
7. Lachenmeier, Dirk W. Safety evaluation of topical applications of ethanol on the skin and inside the oral cavity. J Occup Med Toxicol. 2008; 3: 26. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2596158/
8. Levy, S.B. Antibacterial household products: cause for concern. Emerg Infect Dis. 2001; 7(3 Suppl): 512–515. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2631814/
9. Neufeld, K., et al. (2011). Reduced anxiety-like behavior and central neurochemical change in germ-free mice. Neurogastroenterol. Motil. 23 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2982.2010.01620.x
10. McMurry LM, Oethinger M, et al Center for Adaptation Genetics and Drug Resistance, and Department of Molecular Biology and Microbiology, Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston. Triclosan Targets Lipid Synthesis, Nature, Vol 394, 6 August 1998. http://www.biochem.wisc.edu/faculty/weibel/lab/wiki/McMurry_1998.pdf
11. Miller, T.L., Lorusso, D.J., Walsh, M.L., Deinzer, M.L. The acute toxicity of penta-, hexa-, and heptachlorohydroxydiphenyl ethers in mice. J Toxicol Environ Health. 1983 Aug-Sep;12(2-3):245-53
12. The Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics (APUA), Triclosan White Paper. January 2011. http://www.tufts.edu/med/apua/consumers/personal_home_21_4240495089.pdf