Hand hygiene products labeled as “antibacterial” are produced with active antibacterial chemicals such as triclosan, chloroxylenol, and Benzalkonium Chloride which are intended to kill bacteria and microbes. Yet in recent years the purported benefits of antimicrobial products have been challenged by organizations such as the USDA and FDA, and an increasing amount of research has begun to shed light on certain undesirable components of many antibacterial agents. Below are a few important antibacterial-related issues for institutional purchasers to consider when selecting a hand hygiene product.
Effectiveness of Antimicrobial Products
Antibacterial agents in hand hygiene products work by specifically targeting and killing harmful microbes, which are then removed with water and rinsed down the drain. General purpose soaps work simply through the removal of unhealthy bacteria, which also is in turn washed off the hands and down the drain. It is important to note that antimicrobial products are designed to kill bacteria, but are not necessarily any more powerful than other soaps at removing potentially dangerous viruses from the hands. Furthermore, the overall illness-preventing superiority of antibacterial products has recently come into question. Numerous reports, including research from the Food and Drug Administration and the American Medical Association, have shown that antimicrobial products may be no more effective than regular soaps at removing germs and preventing infection. This research is supported by findings that show the average hand-washing time of 11 seconds (far below the recommended 20) to be inadequate for allowing many slow-acting antibacterial agents to completely take effect.
Harmful Antibacterial Ingredients:
- Triclosan: Triclosan is an active antibacterial and antifungal agent found in 76 percent of antibacterial soaps in the United States. It has been shown to change thyroid and endocrine function, and can disrupt hormone production in humans, a change that may result in an increased risk of breast cancer. The chemical is so prevalent that it is regulated by the EPA, FDA, and Consumer Product Safety Commission, and, in a recent study by Environmental Health Perspectives, was detected in three quarters of evaluated Americans. Triclosan is not biodegradable, and the quantity that enters into rivers, lakes, and oceans is highly toxic to aquatic life and can remain in waterways for several years. Furthermore, there is some concern that the use of products containing triclosan and other antimicrobials could lead to the formation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria strands. For this reason the use of triclosan has been banned or restricted in many countries, including a number of European Union member states.
- Chloroxylenol and Benzalkonium Chloride: Two alternative antimicrobial agents that may be included in hand hygiene products are chloroxylenol (PCMX) and Benzalkonium Chloride (BZK). The predominant medical symptoms associated with the chemical compound chloroxylenol are allergic reactions in the skin and eye irritation, yet years of testing have found PCMX to be largely safe for use by most individuals. It is possible that with certain combinations of ingredients PCMX can in fact cause some minor health problems, but those issues are often attributed to other agents or to the combination of chemicals in some formulas. Benzalkonium Chloride is proven to be an effective, alcohol-free antibacterial agent. BZK can cause minor irritation at the site of application and may lead to allergic reactions for sensitive users, yet for the most part is also considered a safe antimicrobial ingredient. Chloroxylenol and Benzalkonium Chloride are used to a mostly equal extent in the hand hygiene industry, and neither compound is clearly superior to the other. Of course, both PCMX and BZK are significantly preferable to triclosan in respect to human and environmental safety.
Choosing a Hand Hygiene Product
The questionable benefits and potential health risks associated with antibacterial products make them largely unnecessary for use in the majority of organizations. This is particularly relevant for educational purchasers, as the potentially damaging health effects of some antibacterial agents are often magnified in young children. It is therefore pertinent that purchasers consider safe and effective general purpose alternatives to antimicrobial soaps, being sure to consult product labels and Material Safety Data Sheets for product information.
The B4 Brands Policy on Antimicrobial Soaps
B4 Brands recognizes the benefits and potential risks of antibacterial hand hygiene products. As a result, the company has instituted policies that place human health and safety as its top priority. Examples of B4 Brands’ policies include:
- An effort to educate purchasers on the risks of certain antibacterial products.
- A focus on providing safe and effective general purpose soaps for the majority of consumers.
- A strict prohibition of antibacterial hand soaps within the Eco-Premium™ line of hand soap products.
The primary purpose of all hand soap products is to remove potentially harmful microbes from the skin. As has been shown, antimicrobial soaps have been proven to do this no more effectively than general purpose hand soap products, and are therefore in most cases unnecessary. Furthermore, the health and environmental risks posed by antibacterial agents such as triclosan make general purpose soaps a safer and more advantageous alternative for institutional purchasers and the groups they represent. B4 Brands understands these risks and advantages, and strives to provide the safest and most effective general purpose products for the promotion of health and well being in all organizations.