Behind the label: Antibacterial handwash

Hand washing is the single most effective way to prevent the spread of infections. Nevertheless, in the hygiene stakes, antibacterial soaps are a ridiculous form of ‘overkill’.

Some soaps, which contain powerful antibacterial chemicals like Triclosan, benzalkonium chloride or chlorohexidine, work in the same way as antibiotics and can contribute to the problem of bacterial resistance at home and in the wider community.

In addition, the chemical Triclosan is an ecological disaster that is toxic to aquatic life and breaks down into a carcinogenic dioxin compound in our rivers and streams.

As if that weren’t enough, strong antibacterials simply don’t work. Or rather, they work in a different way. Washing with soap and water does not actually kill ‘germs’ – instead it creates a slippery surface that allows them to ‘slide off’. Antibacterial hand washes and soaps do kill bacteria and viruses and these are then washed away in rinse water.

But while antibacterial products may initially remove more organisms than soap and water, within 90 minutes or so there is generally no difference in the number of bacteria and viruses that have repopulated your hands. Given that we each touch around 300 surfaces every half hour, this is hardly surprising.

In 2000, the American Medical Association (AMA) went public with the opinion that antibacterial soaps were no more effective against germs than common soap and recommended that people stopped using them.

When all these facts first began to surface, some manufacturers continued to defend their antibacterial products as effective and necessary. To its credit, PZ Cussons, manufacturers of Carex, has reformulated Britain’s best selling antibacterial handwash to remove Triclosan. But issues remain.

Special cleansers for hands are completely unnecessary products, so to boost sales Carex, which accounts for around a quarter of all antibacterial hand washes sold in the UK, is available in a range of enticing scents and pastel colours, encouraging use in both kitchens and bathrooms.

There is also the problematical message that special cleansers like this send out. Antibacterial handwashes like this are the bodycare equivalent of fast food. We use them to get something done quickly, rather than doing it properly ourselves. In the world of hand-washing, ‘properly’ means covering the hands thoroughly with soap and rubbing them vigorously together for 15 seconds before rinsing thoroughly. Slopping on some antibacterial cleanser for a five second wash, ironically, makes us less attentive to good hygiene, rather than more.

While Carex no longer contains Triclosan, and the detergents in it are relatively mild, it does contain a number of other worrying ingredients. First of all it is highly perfumed. In addition to the ubiquitous ‘parfum’, which in itself can be made up of dozens of chemicals, it also contains the fragrance ingredients citronellol, linalool and limonene – which must be listed separately on labels because they produce such a high rate of allergic reactions – as well as known neurotoxic fragrance chemicals butylphenyl methylpropional and alpha isomethyl ionone.

Then there are the antibacterial ingredients such as methyldibromo glutaronitrile, a formaldehyde-releasing chemical which can cause skin rashes; the solvents such as hexylene glycol – which is equally at home in paints and varnishes – and the preservatives such as tetrasodium EDTA, an environmentally disastrous chemical that binds with heavy metals in lakes and streams, and helps usher these back into the human food chain.

Because Carex is meant to be on display in your home, it also contains atrio of uninvestigated chemicals – sodium benzotriazolyl butylphenol sulfate, buteth-3 and tributyl citrate – which preserve the colour of products in clear packaging, but are of no particular benefit for your skin.

Do yourself a favour: invest in a good bar of soap, and return hand washing to the simple, dependable, non-invasive basic it is meant to be. 


Aqua, sodium laureth sulfate, lauramidopropyl betaine, glycerine, laureth-4, parfum, sodium chloride, sodium lactate, cocamidopropyl PG-dimonium chloride phosphate, polyquaternium-39, citric acid, hexylene glycol, sodium citrate, sodium benzoate, tetrasodium EDTA, methyldibromo glutaronitrile, phenoxyethanol, methylparaben, propylparaben, sodium benzotriazolyl butylphenol sulfate, buteth-3, tributyl citrate, citronellol, butylphenyl methylpropional, linalool, alpha isomethyl ionone, hexyl cinnamal, limonene, CI 42051.


Ingredient - Sodium Laureth Sulphate
Purpose - Detergent
Adverse effects - Skin dryness, eye irritation, penetration enhancer. Laureth compounds can be contaminated with 1,4 dioxane, a carcinogen linked to breast cancer.

Ingredient - Lauramidopropyl Betaine
Purpose - Detergent, foambooster, thickener
Adverse effects - Never been assessed for safety. Though milder than many other detergents it can cause skin and eye irritation; penetration enhancer.

Ingredient - Parfum
Purpose - Fragrance compound
Adverse effects - Allergenic; can trigger asthmatic reactions; skin irritant; central nervous system disruption (eg headache, mood swings, depression, forgetfulness); common fragrance chemicals like artifi cial musks and phthalates are hormone-disrupting.

Ingredient - Cocamidopropyl PG-Dimonium Chloride Phosphate
Purpose - Surfactant, antimicrobial
Adverse effects - Often used in surgical scrubs, it can cause contact dermatitis, sensitisation

Ingredient - Cocamidopropyl PG-Dimoniu Chloride Phosphate
Purpose - Surfactant, antimicrobial
Adverse effects - Often used in surgical scrubs, it can cause contact dermatitis, sensitisation

Ingredient - Hexylene glycol
Purpose - Solvent, moisturising agent
Adverse effects - Can be mildly irritating to eyes, nose, throat and skin. Neurotoxin. Often found in paints, lacquers, varnishes and household cleaners

Ingredient - Sodium benzoate
Purpose - Antimicrobial
Adverse effects - Skin and respiratory irritant.

Ingredient - Tetrasodium EDTA
Purpose - Preservative
Adverse effects - Skin and eye irritation, contact dermatitis; penetration enhancer. Environmentally persistent, binding with heavy metals in lakes and streams aiding their re-entry into the food chain.

Ingredient -Methyldibromo glutaronitrile
Purpose - Antibacterial agent
Adverse effects - Formaldehyde-releasing preservative/antibacterial found in many cosmetics, shampoos, creams, and even some forms of toilet paper. Causes skin rashes and allergic reactions; medical literature shows that sensitivity to this chemical has increased over the years.

Ingredient - Phenoxyethanol
Purpose - Antibacterial agent and solvent
Adverse effects - Skin irritation, contact dermatitis.

Ingredient - Phenoxyethanol
Purpose - Antibacterial agent and solvent
Adverse effects - Skin irritation, contact dermatitis.

Ingredient - Methylparaben, Propylparaben
Purpose - Preservatives
Adverse effects - Skin irritation, contact dermatitis, contact allergies; estrogen mimics. Environmental estrogen mimics have been linked to breast cancer.

Ingredient - Butylphenyl methylpropional
Purpose - Synthetic fragrance
Adverse effects - Skin irritant, sensitiser. In animals, skin applications at high concentrations caused sperm damage and central nervous system effects such as drowsiness and breathing diffi culties.

Ingredient - Alpha-isomethyl ionone
Purpose - Synthetic fragrance
Adverse effects - Skin sensitisation; central nervous system disruption.

Ingredient - CI 42051
Purpose - Synthetic colour
Adverse effects - A coal-tar dye also known as Patent blue 5. Allergic reactions include redness of skin, itching and urticaria.


...isn’t so hard to find. Instead of using harsh detergents to do a simple job, seek out these alternatives

Beauty Naturals

Burt’s Bees

Earthbound Organics

Faith in Nature

My Being Well

Organic Options



This article first appeared in the Ecologist September 2006

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