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Mounting data suggest antibacterial soaps do more harm than good

Whether you’re coming home from an airport fluttering with international germs, a daycare full of sticky-fingered toddlers, or just a grimy office building, scrubbing your hands with bacteria-busting soap seems like a great idea. But the data that have washed up on the cleansers in recent years suggest that they actually do more harm than good—for you, those around you, and the environment.

Scientists report that common antibacterial compounds found in those soaps, namely triclosan and triclocarban, may increase the risk of infections, alter the gut microbiome, and spur bacteria to become resistant to prescription antibiotics. Meanwhile, proof of the soaps’ benefits is slim.

There are specific circumstances in which those antimicrobials can be useful, civil engineer Patrick McNamara of Marquette University in Milwaukee told Ars. Triclosan, for instance, may be useful to doctors scrubbing for minutes at a time before a surgery or for hospital patients who can’t necessarily scrub with soap but could soak in a chemical bath. Triclosan and triclocarban do kill off bacteria during long washes. But most people only clean their hands for a few seconds. “There’s evidence that there is no improvement with using soaps that have these chemicals relative to washing your hands under warm water for 30 seconds with soaps without these chemicals,” he said.

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