New Study: A Common Soap Ingredient Could Harm Your Health

Triclosan may cause health problems—and it doesn’t prevent disease better than regular soap and water. Photo: Getty Images.

We all grow up learning to wash our hands with soap and water—it’s the best way to stop the spread of germs, after all. Unfortunately, as a new study suggests, one common antimicrobial may be affecting our health. The chemical in question, triclosan, is used in a host of antibacterial personal care products, from hand soaps to deodorants.

Now, researchers from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine say that triclosan could have long-term repercussions for health. The study, published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that exposure to triclosan caused liver fibrosis and cancer in mice. Mice exposed to triclosan for six months—the equivalent of 18 human years—were more susceptible to liver tumors, and their tumors were larger than those in mice who were not exposed to the chemical. The results provide clues as to how triclosan may affect human health, since liver toxicity affects humans and mice in a similar way.

This isn’t the first time the safety of triclosan has come under scrutiny. Studies have shown that triclosan changes hormones in animals, a CDC study found that 75% of humans have traces of the chemical in their urine, and it’s present in the breast milk of most lactating women. And as it turns out, many scientists agree that triclosan isn’t even more effective than washing hands with simple soap and water. Colleen Rogers, Ph.D., a lead microbiologist at the Food and Drug Administration, has said that antibacterial soaps don’t prevent illness any better than regular soaps. “New data suggest that the risks associated with long-term, daily use of antibacterial soaps may outweigh the benefits,” she stated last year.

Perhaps surprisingly, concerns over triclosan are decades old. “Unfortunately, the FDA started looking at whether it was going to allow triclosan to be used in these products in 1978, yet they never actually finalized that decision,” says Mae Wu, a senior attorney at the National Resources Defense Council. “So, with the boom in antibacterial soaps, triclosan continued to be used.” In 2011, the NRDC brought a lawsuit against the FDA, ultimately settling on an agreement: The FDA would meet new deadlines and rule on triclosan. “We’re in the midst of that right now,” Wu says. The FDA is expected to finalize its decision by September 2016; meanwhile, a Minnesota ban on triclosan goes into effect in 2017.

Until then, it’s up to consumers to decide if using triclosan is worth the potential risk. For those who want to go triclosan-free, reading a product’s ingredient labels is the best plan—or, try one of these four effective triclosan-free hand soaps:


Yes to Grapefruit Basil hand soap ($3.99)

Made with grapefruit extract and coconut oil, this triclosan-free soap leaves a light citrus-basil fragrance after washing.


Philosophy Holiday Hands Duo ($27)

Scented with a refreshing citrus-sage fragrance, this triclosan-free hand wash and hand lotion are packaged for easy holiday gifting.


Method Rice and Milk Mallow hand wash ($3.99)

This triclosan-free hand wash smells soft and comforting. The preppy packaging perks up a sink, too.


Mrs. Meyer’s Radish hand soap ($3.99)

Aloe vera gel, olive oil, and clove oil are part of this cleansing blend, which is formulated without triclosan.