From hand sanitizers and body washes to detergents and dish soaps, we love everything that comes with the antibacterial label. But is the overuse of antibacterial products doing more harm than good? The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) certainly thinks so, as it's considering a ban on common antibacterial compounds that are also known to harm the environment. What’s more, scientists have found that the chemical compounds in antibacterial products have found their way into fetuses in pregnant mothers.

Researchers reported their findings at the 248th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society.

"We looked at the exposure of pregnant women and their fetuses to triclosan and triclocarban, two of the most commonly used germ-killers in soaps and other everyday products," said Dr. Benny Pycke, a research scientists at Arizona State University, in a press release. "We found triclosan in all of the urine samples from the pregnant women that we screened. We also detected it in about half of the umbilical cord blood samples.”

Triclosan was first registered as a pesticide back in the 1960s. But with a potential to be used as an antimicrobial ingredient, it began being manufactured into antibacterial products. Recent studies have shown the serious health implications that triclosan and triclocarban present in animals, and possibly in humans, too. In the lab, these compounds were shown to disrupt hormones essential for neural and reproductive development and produce drug resistance in bacteria.

While its true that the human body can flush out these compounds, constant exposure may still leave traces inside the body. "If you cut off the source of exposure, eventually triclosan and triclocarban would quickly be diluted out, but the truth is that we have universal use of these chemicals, and therefore also universal exposure," lead investigator Dr. Rolf Halden said in the release.

While scientists have not been able to replicate lab results showing the effects of these compounds on people, State University of New York's Dr. Laura Geer found another interesting outcome during the study. The study showed that women with high levels of the antimicrobial compound butyl paraben, found in cosmetic products, gave birth to shorter newborns. It's yet to be seen how these compounds will affect people in the long-term. But if their findings are confirmed in larger studies, it could mean that widespread exposure to these compounds may cause subtle, but large-scale effects on birth size. 

Currently there are more than 2,000 over-the-counter products that contain these compounds, including toothpastes, soaps, detergents, carpets, paints, school supplies, and toys, the researchers said. Besides harming the human body, these dangerous compounds are no good for the environment either. Our ecosystem, especially lakes, accumulate large amounts of triclosan due to the release of sewage water. In turn, marine life is harmed. 

Because of these implications, several governments have considered banning products that use these compounds. Minnesota became the first state to pass a ban on the use of antimicrobials in certain products. The ban is expected to take effect in January 2017. The Canadian Environmental Law Association has also urged the Canadian government to ban these two compounds. Meanwhile, companies like Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble have also announced the discontinuation of these compounds from some of their products. At the federal level, the FDA and Environmental Protection Agency have recommended a scientific review of these compounds, and with sufficient evidence may consider banning them.

Source: Geer L, Halden R, Pycke B, et al. Human biomonitoring of prenatal exposure to triclosan and triclocarban in a multiethnic urban population from Brooklyn, New York. At The 248th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society. 2014.