Antibacterial liquid soaps, spiked with controversial triclosan, are crowding pesticide-free versions off the shelves. True, our return to crowded workplaces and classrooms means we're bound to get our hands a little dirty, and cold/flu season looms on the far side of halcyon days. But why worry now, and who needs overkill? After all, a little judicious exposure to germs may strengthen immune systems, according to a recent study of 13,524 children. Those who lived on farms had a reduced risk of developing asthma compared with other rural and urban children; this may be due, at least in part, to exposure to "endotoxins" from animal viruses and manure, the study's lead author said. 

As for triclosan, The American Medical Association, U.S. Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization and many scientists are concerned that it is contributing to the spread of antiobiotic-resistant bacteria, and recommend washing hands and household surfaces with plain soap and water, instead. Despite its presence in half of 259 hand soaps examined by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), triclosan is easy to avoid: Just read labels and choose products that don't list it as an active ingredient.

To get you started, some product tips:

Kids and parents can have nontoxic fun with these new products from Kiss My Face: Obsessively Natural Kids self-foaming handwash and bubblewash (bubble bath), which have no triclosan, synthetic fragrance (phthalates) or parabens. Neither do the following liquid hand washes which are also free of, according to EWG's Skin Deep database: Aubrey Organics, Avalon Organics, Dr Bronner's (we love their new baby-unscented and rose oil formulas) and Earth Friendly Products with organic lavender. Check out Skin Deep for more products.

If you want something a bit stronger, but without triclosan or alcohol, there's a new line of all-natural antibacterial hand washes from Cleanwell. Instead, they use a patented mixture of plant essential oils. The active ingredient: thyme oil. Cleanwell also makes hand sanitizers in gel (including a handy pocket size) and individually-wrapped wipes, which, yes, waste packaging but are good to keep for emergencies.

Does it really work? First, anything will work insofar as it rubs or slides germs off your skin. That's how plain soap and water works.  As for how this works compared with other antibacterial products, only thyme will tell.

This article originally appeared in Plenty in September 2008. The story was added to

Copyright Environ Press 2008