Our Reliance on Soap Could Be Making Us Sick

Getting clean might not be all that good for us.



Every day the media bombards us with new health discoveries, corroborated and otherwise. When something as ubiquitous and seemingly innocuous as soap keeps popping up in headlines, it’s hard to ignore. This became particularly true when, this past September, the F.D.A. passed a new ban that would send a lot of health and beauty companies running back to the lab.

“The Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of soaps containing certain antibacterial chemicals,” reported Sabrina Tavernise the Times. “In all the F.D.A. took action against 19 different chemicals and has given industry a year to take them out of their products.”

Apparently about 40% of soaps on the market contain these chemicals. Last time I checked, that was a shit-ton! And a lot of it is probably sitting in our bathrooms, making us feel squeaky clean and superior on a nightly basis. And this — in regards to the two most common newly-banned chemicals — sounds worrisome: “Studies in animals have shown that triclosan and triclocarban can disrupt the normal development of the reproductive system and metabolism,” Tavernise wrote. “Health experts warn that their effects could be the same in humans.”

Apparently The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found these very chemicals in the urine of three-quarters of Americans. “It has boggled my mind why we were clinging to these compounds, and now that they are gone I feel liberated,” said Rolf Halden, a scientist at the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University. “They had absolutely no benefit but we kept them buzzing around us everywhere.”

Experts are seeking to ban more chemicals commonly found in soaps, such as benzalkonium chloride, benzethonium chloride, chloroxylenol, alcohol (ethanol or ethyl alcohol) and isopropyl alcohol, to name a few. Companies that use them will soon face the same fate: prove they’re more help than harm or nix them.

At the heart of this conversation lies something much closer to home than the lab: our love affair with being clean.

“Some scientists believe that our society’s current obsession with cleanliness — both in the form of overuse of antibacterial cleaning products, as well as an exceedingly sanitized lifestyle that keeps us isolated from most sources of germs that can make us ill — has caused our immune systems to become hypersensitive to foreign assaults of all kinds, whether harmful or beneficial,” reports Time.

Researchers at the University of Michigan School of Public Health found that the levels of triclosan (the one recently banned by the F.D.A.) in urine was a good indicator for how “clean” the person’s environment was. “Among those under the age of 18, [researcher Allison Aiello] and her colleagues found that those who showed higher levels of triclosan were more likely to report allergies or hay fever. In fact, for every unit increase of triclosan excreted, there was a 24% greater likelihood of being diagnosed with hay fever or allergies among those younger than 18.”

A recent study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology revealed similar findings but from the opposite perspective, people who don’t over-sterilize their homes. “About 41 percent of allergy-free and wheeze-free children in the study grew up in homes that were rich with allergens and bacteria. By contrast, only 8 percent of children who suffered from both allergy and wheezing had been exposed to these substances in their first year of life.”

So what do we do with all this information? Stop showering? Throw out all of our products? For guidance, I talked to Dr. Rupy Aujla — a general practitioner and the founder of The Doctor’s Kitchen — because he’s a pro at using credible science and a balanced head when it comes to traversing health trends. He’s also a fan of good bacteria — recall his thoughts on probiotics.

“The danger of soap is quite topical at the moment,” he told me. “It’s part of a much bigger discussion, which is whether we need to be wary of personal care products in general. And my answer to that is a rather inconvenient yes.”

He went on to explain that while most people are have an easier time comprehending that what we ingest through food and drink impacts our health, many underestimate the impact of what we put on our skin. “Skin has a barrier function, it’s involved in thermoregulation,” he said, “But it’s also permeable. That’s why I can prescribe hormone replacement topical patches for menopausal women to good effect.”

This point of view unfortunately does more than make us careless in our everyday choices, it actually pervades the way these two things — ingestible products versus topical — are regulated. Food and pharmaceuticals have far more rigorous standards as compared to health and beauty products. “On a yearly basis, thousands of petrochemicals are synthesized and introduced to the incredible library of compounds that come into contact with humans,” Dr. Aujla said. “A lot found in personal care products like shampoos, moisturizers, makeup and soap are not regulated for safety.” So, as we continue to get a better grasp on what is and isn’t truly cause for concern, how do we move forward practically?

“Does an ingredient with an unusual ‘chemically’ sounding name mean that it is bad for you? No, of course not,” Dr. Aujla assured me. “But considering the recent high profile cases involving toxic substances that have been exposed to human populations for decades before they were banned, you can understand why people are getting worried and exercising caution by opting for ‘natural’ skincare products. I wouldn’t say it’s unreasonable.”

He also he advised we be realistic. “Remember, we live in a world surrounded by unnatural elements ranging from vehicle pollution, electronic lights, artificial scents and conditioned air. It’s very easy to fall into the unhealthy agoraphobic mindset of being fearful of everything in our environment. It’s important to remember that our bodies are fantastic detoxifying machines that are particularly good at removing foreign compounds and the best way to support them is a diet rich in greens, colorful plant foods, clean water, exercise and reducing exposure to refined processed ingredients.”

But a loosening of our paranoia belt might be even better directed at our fear of germs. “This obsession with wanting to kill germs and rid ourselves of all bacteria is an unhealthy perspective to take,” Dr. Aujla continued. “We live in a symbiotic relationship with the vast majority of bacteria in and around our bodies. They are responsible for maintaining immunity, controlling inflammation as well as digestion of nutrients.”

So, in essence: don’t panic, but chill on the soap, and buy natural when you can.

On the topic of side-eyeing health trends, how bad is sugar really, really?

Photo by Krista Anna Lewis.

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  • Claire

    totally agree! i always love your angle haley. and this soap thing has been on my mind for a while, several years ago i was on a road trip where my friend and i didn’t find places to shower as often on the road, and our skin was never better! so we realized how skipping a few showers a week definitely has good side effects. and then a few years ago, i was in a phase where i had so many UTIs, and it helped sooo much to stop using shower gel in the shower… as my gynecologist suggest i stop doing. some people who i tell that to, that i don’t use soap, are so weirded out, but our skin really doesn’t need it. just water cleans us enough (and i do have the shampoo running out of my hair and down my body too). and i do love to put moisturizer and perfume etc on, so if it’s the sent of the soap, i do get it from elsewhere, just not as invasive for my body and not into all the body parts as shower gel would slip in.

  • Ryley
  • Anne Dyer

    “Let them eat dirt” is my parenting philosophy.

  • Once my stepdad told me that there was a family who lived in a cottage in the middle of nowhere in Siberia, who were never exposed to any germs in their lives because all they knew was their little cottage. Then they went into the city and all got sick and died. 99.9% this was made up but essentially the point is it’s healthy to be exposed to some germs.

  • Natasha

    Very interesting! I think a lot can be learned if we stop thinking of our bodies as pristine vessels and more as complex ecosystems.

  • Fox.Fern

    This is just anectdata, but I was a shower every day person from age 11 to 21, and I also got sick CONSTANTLY. I basically had one continual sinus infection for ten straight years. (I was also very stressed out, because I lived in an emotionally abusive home.) Then I stopped using shampoo altogether and switched to showering twice a week, with a little bit of Dr. Bronner’s here and there. I wash my hair with dark rye flour and water (google it) and I Never. Get. Sick. And on the rare occasion that I do, I kick it so fast! I also moved to Oregon and took up wandering around in the woods, and I’m in much healthier relationships, so the cleanliness thing is really just one part of it, but seriously, stop showering so much and smearing god-knows-what on yourself. It’s great.

    • Ten years of being sick, yikes that’s rough, but should mean that you’ve built-up quite the immunity – so it makes sense that you would barely get sick now. I’d be amazed if you don’t get acne or have really dry hair when you use dark rye flour shampoo. But I’m on the same page as you with not washing your hair EVERY day; it really dries out your hair. And coincidentally makes your scalp produce more oil. I find washing hair every 3-5 days is the best time frame. Past that you can get really dry flaky scalp. 🙂

  • I feel like with topics like this it’s always hard to really determine what’s a fact and what’s altered information. It sorta seems like whatever company has the power calls the shots. I remember being younger and hearing about how certain things were bad for us. Fast forward to today and they are now riddled with “health benefits”. Coffee and Marajuana are just two things that quickly come to mind … of course as things advance, we learn more, and our ideas change. But I guess my point is, ‘Believe none of what you hear, and only half of what you see.’
    Has anyone read any case studies on these ingredients and know who’s affiliated with them? Just curious.

  • Donna

    My friend has Lupus and every other year would land in the hospital with a kidney infection so she was using Purell on her hands every day in an attempt to keep germs at bay but that in turn caused her hands to develop contact dermitis from the constant use of it. Her dermatologist told her to stop and switch to just soap and water.

  • Nicole

    I work in a hospital and I use hand sanitzer between every patient, for my health and theirs. I shower every day, but only use antibacterial soap in the workplace–regular organic soaps at home. The blanket statement “soap is bad, being clean is an obsession” seems reductive and misleading. That being said, my home environment has far less germs, and I am less stringent about cleaning. All of that being said, I get sick maybe 4 times a year or less.