My wife and I made a decision today to not buy any more anti-bacterial soaps. We had regularly kept a pump dispenser of Savlon or I.C.U. Homecare Hygienic Liquid Handwash at the kitchen sink. But the more I read about anti-bacterial soaps, the less that I think this is a good idea.

I have not seen conclusive studies that fish or other animals are dying from the anti-bacterial chemicals used in these soaps. But there are worries. Some of them are known to be toxic to fish, such as Chloroxylenol, which is used in Dettol. Some are very persistent in the environment. Triclosan and Triclocarban (Trichlorocarbanilide), related chemicals that are found in Protex, Gill, Savlon and Cuticura soaps, are commonly found in river water.

Rolf Halden, assistant professor of the Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health has published research on these chemicals and says, “Triclocarban does not break down easily even under the intense measures applied during wastewater treatment.” That doesn’t prove that it causes harm, but here’s Harden’s worry:

“We’ve been using triclocarban for almost half a century at rates approaching 1 million pounds per year, but we have essentially no idea of what exactly happens to the compound after we flush it down the drain.”

I.C.U. uses the one antibacterial agent that is at least biodegradable, glutaraldehyde, but even that doesn’t make it entirely benign. The fact is that if a chemical is designed to kill living organisms, we should not be surprised to learn that it has a dark side.

If these soaps made my family healthier and safer from harmful germs, then we would have to weigh those benefits against rather uncertain environmental concerns. Fortunately numerous studies suggest there is no such trade-off. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Nonprescription Drugs Advisory Committee voted unanimously on October 20, 2005 that there was a lack of evidence supporting the benefit of consumer products including handwashes, bodywashes, etc. containing antibacterial additives over similar products not containing antibacterial additives.

In other words, soap is soap. You don’t have to kill those germs; you just have to wash them off your hands. The New York Times says:

Over the years, studies have repeatedly shown that antibacterial soaps are no better than plain old soap and water.

One study, published in The Journal of Community Health in 2003, followed adults in 238 households in New York City for nearly a year.

Month after month, the researchers found no difference in the number of microbes that turned up on the hands of people who used either antibacterial soap or regular soap. At least four other large studies have had similar findings.

Some governments actively discourage the use of antibacterial soaps, probably because of the yet-unproven possibility that they could foster antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

So here’s an easy decision: I can keep my family just as healthy, save money and keep dubious chemicals out of our waterways.