Antimicrobials have limited benefit, if any, and are associated with developmental, hormonal, and reproductive problems.
What are they?
Antimicrobials are chemicals added to products to kill or inhibit the growth of microbes. They are also called antibacterials or biocides. Antimicrobials of concern include halogenated aromatic compounds such as triclosan and triclocarban, nanosilver, and quaternary ammonium salts (quats) such as benzalkonium chloride.
Uses include cleaning and personal care products, clothing and linens, and building materials and furnishings. They are also found in some food storage containers, kitchenware, school supplies, exercise mats, and electronics. Learn more about products that may contain antimicrobials.
What are the health concerns?
Antimicrobials may have adverse effects on beneficial microorganisms and other living things. For example, triclosan can disrupt hormone functioning and is associated with developmental and reproductive effects, allergen sensitivity, and antibiotic resistance. Some studies suggest it may also harm beneficial gut bacteria. Quats are associated with asthma, dermatitis, and allergies.
How are we exposed?
People absorb antimicrobials through skin contact and ingest antimicrobial-contaminated house dust. Babies, who are especially vulnerable to toxics, are exposed in-utero from maternal exposure and later through nursing. Triclosan has been found in three-quarters of the US population and in nearly all breast milk samples tested.
What are the environmental concerns?
The current high-volume use of antimicrobials is causing widespread contamination of the environment and wildlife. When products containing antimicrobials are washed down the drain or disposed of, antimicrobials are released into aquatic environments where they bioaccumulate in marine food webs. Triclosan, triclocarban, quats, and nanosilver are all toxic to aquatic organisms. Further, triclosan, triclocarban, and nanosilver are not broken down by wastewater treatment and persist in sludge that may later be applied to agricultural soil.
Should they be used?
The perceived health benefit of antimicrobials as used in consumer products is not supported by data. For most uses, they provide no measurable benefit to consumers. In fact, overuse of antimicrobials may contribute to increased bacterial resistance to antibiotics. Washing hands with plain soap and water is just as effective.
In September 2016, the FDA stopped the use of triclosan, triclocarban and many other antimicrobials in hand soaps and body washes. Unfortunately, the use of other antimicrobials such as nanosilver and quats is increasing.
What Can You Do?
Avoid products that are advertised as “antimicrobial”, “antibacterial”, or “anti-odor”.
Soaps, body washes, toothpaste, and cosmetics will list antimicrobial chemicals on the ingredient label.
Note that many personal care products are replacing triclosan and triclocarban with quats (e.g., benzalkonium chloride, benzethonium chloride) or chemicals with limited information on health impacts (e.g., chloroxylenol).
Tell manufacturers, retailers, and government agencies you want products without antimicrobials.
Other Videos on Antimicrobials
Webcast introducing the new Antimicrobials video featuring conversation with Jen Jackson, Tom McKeag, Marty Mulvihill, and Arlene Blum.
The Florence Statement on Triclosan and Triclocarban
Introduction to Antimicrobials: Gary Ginsburg, Connecticut Dept. of Public Health
Where have all the toxic chemicals gone? Arlene Blum at TEDxWellesleyCollege
- The Florence Statement on Triclosan and Triclocarban – This consensus statement, signed by over 200 scientists, documents the potential harms and lack of benefit of the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban.
- Silver Nanotechnology and the Environment: Old Problems or New Challenges – This Pew Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies report reviews the environmental pathways and potential toxicity, bioaccumulation, and persistence of nanosilver.
- Antimicrobial Products in the Home: The Evolving Problem of Antibiotic Resistance – This position statement by the Canadian Paediatric Society outlines antibiotic resistance and other health risks of antimicrobials (including triclosan and quats) and recommends they be avoided in the vast majority of home settings.
- Healthy Environments: Understanding Antimicrobial Ingredients in Building Materials – Healthy Building Network in partnership with Perkins+Will created this paper to inform architects, designers, building owners, tenants, and contractors on the health and environmental impacts of antimicrobials commonly used in building materials.
- FDA bans sale of many antibacterial soaps, saying risks outweigh benefits. New York Times, 9/2/2016.
- Quats quagmire: common disinfectants cause reproductive problems in mice, study says. Environmental Health News, 8/13/2014.
- Minnesota issues ban on antibacterial ingredient. CNN, 5/21/2014.
- Some antibacterials come with worrisome silver lining. Chicago Tribune, 2/16/2014.
- Germ-resistant clothes: pick or pass? ABC News, 3/11/2012