While hand soap appears banal and harmless, University of Minnesota research — and a new national ban on a common antibacterial agent in soaps —could suggest otherwise.
Earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration cited health concerns when it set a target date to eliminate 19 compounds frequently used as additives in soap.
In 2013, University of Minnesota researchers studying waterways found that one of the compounds — triclosan — accumulated because of its usage in soap, said professor William Arnold, co-author of the study.
When triclosan was found in rivers, it damaged parts of the ecosystem, like algae, and sparked concern among the researchers, who thought it could be harmful to humans, said Arnold.
The compound isn’t found in drinking water in large amounts, but follow-up research at other universities showed that when used in soap, triclosan diffuses through the skin and can enter the bloodstream, he said.
In the body, the compound can throw off the body’s hormonal balance, Arnold said, which can potentially cause cancer or developmental disorders in young people.
“Once it goes down the drain, it accumulates in lakes and rivers … when you use it, it goes into your bloodstream and … urine,” he said.
On top of its environmental and health concerns, triclosan was found to be no more effective than soap on its own, Arnold said.
“While triclosan certainly does kill bacteria … [to consumers] it had no benefit,” she said.
Using triclosan, which specifically kills bacteria, spurs resistance to antibiotics, said Timothy LaPara, a University professor with expertise in the field.
This resistance is often fairly universal, LaPara said, meaning that bacteria resistant to triclosan can also become resistant to medical antibiotics.
“[Regardless] of the compound, what we’ve discovered is using one antibiotic will [create] resistance to other antibiotics,” he said.
Despite this, harmless bacteria could potentially transfer resistant characteristics to other harmful diseases that infect humans, LaPara said.
“What happens is those mechanisms of resistance, the bacteria can exchange them … they can exchange these [traits],” he said.
On campus, some soaps and products used in University facilities contain triclosan and other soon-to-be-banned compounds, said Tim Busse, a University spokesman.
Currently, the number of these products is not known, and the University is working with suppliers to secure new products, he said, adding that the tricolsan ban goes into effect next year, and the University has some time to find an alternative.