Column: Soap's dirty little secret

Published Jan. 22, 2014

Bath & Body Works touts itself as "a 21st-century apothecary integrating health, beauty and well-being" that "reinvented the personal care industry with the introduction of fragrant flavorful indulgences." Indeed, it boasts more than 100 flavors of liquid hand soap alone, in fragrances ranging from "Kitchen Lemon" to "Sea Island Cotton."

There's one thing that all these soaps have in common: triclosan, a pesticide and antibacterial agent. Including triclosan in its liquid hand soaps allows Bath & Body Works and other hand-soap makers to label their products as being "antibacterial."

The appeal of antibacterial soap is the much-advertised notion that it is "clinically proven" to kill 99 percent of germs. But what about the other 1 percent? Presumably, they will survive and multiply, eventually leading to the rise of antibacterial resistance.

Indeed, according to a recent study in the journal Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety, nearly 80 percent of all "fecal coliforms" — bacteria associated with fecal material — at a New Jersey wastewater site were triclosan resistant, suggesting that most of us already harbor triclosan-resistant bacteria. Related evidence of triclosan's ubiquity comes from the Center for Disease Control's National Biomonitoring Program, which has detected triclosan in the urine of 75 percent of Americans sampled.

Despite the risk that rising antibacterial resistance poses to human health, individual consumers still have an incentive to use antibacterial soap, as long as it provides added protection against disease. In game theory, this type of quandary is called "the prisoners' dilemma." In the classic story of this game, two prisoners are each lured to confess to a crime by the promise of a reduced sentence but, when both confess, both wind up going to jail for longer than if neither had confessed.

In much the same way, consumers are lured to use triclosan-laden soap by the promise of antibacterial protection but, once everyone washes their hands with triclosan, we all face the negative consequences of having fostered antibacterial resistance.

Last month, the Food and Drug Administration proposed a new rule that would "require manufacturers to provide more substantial data to demonstrate the safety and effectiveness of antibacterial soaps." People now have several months to comment and the FDA is encouraging researchers from industry, academic institutions and elsewhere to submit any data they might have that sheds light on triclosan's safety and effectiveness.

But many activists and politicians are disappointed, as they were hoping for an outright ban of triclosan.

However, while a ban would take triclosan off store shelves, it wouldn't fundamentally change the game, because consumers would still clamor for whatever replaces triclosan as the next antibacterial agent in hand soap. And that unknown next ingredient might be even worse.

The FDA's new "prove-it" approach will be better than a ban, as it will expose the industry's dirty little secret — that these so-called antibacterial soaps they've been peddling for decades actually offer no meaningful protection from bacteria. To have any antibacterial effect, triclosan must sit on the hands for at least two minutes, but even the Mayo Clinic recommends only 20 seconds for hand-washing. Consequently, while triclosan does indeed kill bacteria in the lab, no one is getting any actual antibacterial benefit from having triclosan in their hand soap.

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Recognizing this, responsible market leaders such as Colgate-Palmolive phased out antibacterials from their consumer product lines years ago. It's time for Bath & Body Works and other sellers who still infuse their soaps with triclosan to follow suit.

David McAdams is professor of economics at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business and author of "Game-Changer: Game Theory and the Art of Transforming Strategic Situations."