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EWG's Healthy Home Tips

Tip 5 - Wash those hands, but avoid Triclosan

EWG's Healthy Home Tips: Tip 5 - Wash those hands, but avoid Triclosan

Washing our hands is something we do many times a day because it's a proven way to kill germs. So why are we highlighting something you already do? Because it's an effective -- but often overlooked -- way to reduce your exposure to toxic chemicals, especially for children. Ironically, some soaps contain chemicals you should avoid, so choosing a safer soap is important and more challenging than it should be.


As you know, hand washing with basic soap and water effectively prevents the spread of infection. It also prevents the transfer of toxic chemicals from your hands to your mouth. Scientists have found that children actually ingest more chemicals off their hands than from mouthing toxic products directly, such as arsenic from playing on older wooden swing sets or fire retardants found on some electronics.

Timing is important -- be sure that children wash hands before eating and, for those who put their hands in their mouths frequently, after playing too.

A word about hand sanitizers: These waterless cleansers can be convenient, but are designed to kill bacteria -- not to remove dust and dirt, which is often how chemicals migrate. Washing with soap and water, on the other hand, kills bacteria and more thoroughly removes grime from hands to reducer any toxic exposures.


Anti-bacterial soaps do kill bacteria and microbes -- but so do plain soap and water. A U.S. FDA advisory committee found that use of antibacterial soaps provides no benefits over plain soap and water.

The main reason to avoid anti-bacterial soaps is its active ingredient: triclosan (and the related triclocarbon). Triclosan is an anti-bacterial chemical found in many consumer products, and it's nearly ubiquitous in liquid hand soap. It is linked to liver and inhalation toxicity, and even low levels of triclosan may disrupt thyroid function. Further, the American Medical Association recommends that triclosan not be used in the home, as it may encourage bacterial resistance to antibiotics.

EWG Guide to TriclosanIt also affects the natural environment. Wastewater treatment does not remove all of the chemical, which means it ends up in our lakes, rivers and water sources. That's especially unfortunate since triclosan is very toxic to aquatic life.

To learn more about triclosan and how to avoid it, read our short report and download our 1-page guide.



Knowing what ingredients to avoid is important, but identifying safer alternatives is an equally important next step. We recommend "plain" soap and water for the most effective and least problematic hand washing.

Always check the ingredient list! When you're at the store, read those labels. Fragrance, triclosan and triclocarbon will be listed, making it easy to leave them on the shelf and find safer soaps.

Liquid and bar soaps
There are liquid and bar soaps and hand sanitizers that don't contain triclosan or fragrance, another ingredient we recommend avoiding.

You can find liquid hand soaps that don't contain triclosan, triclocarbon or fragrance in our Skin Deep database.

Prefer bar soap? Choose from these that have no triclosan, triclocarbon or fragrance.

Hand sanitizers
If you like the convenience of waterless hand sanitizers, alcohol-based sanitizers are a better bet because they don't contain triclosan or triclocarbon. We suggest you choose one that doesn’t contain fragrance. You can find products without these ingredients in our Skin Deep database.

Remember: Hand sanitizers don't prevent hand-to-mouth chemical transfers as well as soap and water, because their purpose is to kill bacteria, not to remove the dust and dirt that can harbor chemicals. Also, when washing with water, product ingredients are partially washed off, whereas all ingredients in hand sanitizers are left to fully absorb into your skin.

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