I was all-in on bad science, and I’m sorry

I was selfish. I was arrogant. I willfully contributed to an environmental and public-health crisis that is putting my children, your children, everyone at risk. All I can say is I’m sorry, I’ve changed, and I’ll do my best to make this right.

I’m talking about antibacterial soap. Chemicals like triclosan and triclocarban have contributed to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria like MRSA. They’re known endocrine disruptors that our babies wind up consuming in breast milk. They’re contaminating our water supply.

The state of Minnesota has banned triclosan, and the FDA is mulling a national ban on antibacterial soap (big update on this below). For more on the problem, check out this article from Arizona State University (go Devils).

But I’m not here to lecture you on the dangers of antibacterial chemicals. For me, the issue is personal. I remember my high-school biology teacher sounding the alarm 17 years ago, and I didn’t listen.

Why? I was self-conscious. I’m not always the best-looking guy in the room, but I’m usually the tallest and the heaviest. I decided early on that I could succeed as a big fat guy but not as a big, fat stinky guy.

That’s why I’m meticulous in the shower, covering every inch in rich, thick lather. Only bar soap will do. My family used to buy Lever 2000, and a ’90s Men’s Health survey said ladies preferred its scent to other bars on a freshly showered man.

Things were all good until college, when Lever 2000 co-branded with Vaseline Intensive Care. My naturally oily skin didn’t need extra moisturizer — especially not OLD PEOPLE moisturizer — so I started researching other bars.

Prior to that, I had assumed all soaps were antibacterial. It turned out you had to read the ingredients to find which ones had what I thought was the good stuff: triclosan or triclocarban. How could people use soap that doesn’t kill bacteria? I settled on Irish Spring Sport. When that disappeared, I bounced around between different varieties of Dial and Dial for Men.

All that really mattered was that it rinsed clean and killed the bacteria. Because bacteria equals stink, right? Science. Don’t forget the hand soap. And the dish soap. Go bright orange or go home.

I swore I could tell the difference. I could feel it in the grime on my hands or smell it in my crevices at the end of the day. All that bacteria would dog me until I could go nuclear on it again. Pass the antibacterial soap.

After I had kids, I learned about how these chemicals hang out in the endocrine system. People were freaking out about MRSA in a McDonald’s PlayPlace. I felt a little guilty but kept buying antibacterial. I willfully exposed both my kids to these chemicals.

Eventually it got hard to find Dial for Men 24-Hour Odor Armor antibacterial soap. That’s a real product name for a manly-smelling soap that comes shaped like a tactical grip. Dial still makes it, but Target stopped carrying it. I got tired of desperately digging through the soap aisle to find something antibacterial, manly and light on moisturizers.

I started using plain-old Irish Spring (classic), the non-antibacterial Dial for Men flavors (gotta have that grip) and even Dove Men+Care in the drier months (because dadvertising).

I processed all the bad stuff I know about antibacterial chemicals, and I phased out the hand soaps and dish soaps as well. I try to follow CDC handwashing guidelines rather than assume the soap is doing all the work. I’ve even quit the benzol peroxide face wash.

Please don’t think I’m bragging. Remember this is an apology to you, to my kids, to all the good bacteria. I’m no green-living superstar; I’m just a guy who made one choice to live a little cleaner and safer.

But hey, come smell me! I still smell pretty good.

Bigger picture, I understand that a lot of us make choices based on gut feelings, wrongheaded assumptions and disproven science. We parents can be the worst. It feels good to be in control and even better to feel like we’re protecting our kids from scary things like bacteria. It feels so good, sometimes, that we shut out contradicting information.

The cool thing about science is that it gives us a mechanism to test our assumptions. When we’re wrong, we can pivot, evolve our thinking and understand things better.

I want this apology to be a playbook for anyone who went all-in on bad science. Maybe you refuse to believe in evolution. Maybe you won’t admit that we’re making the planet warmer. Maybe you haven’t vaccinated your children against a bunch of deadly diseases. We all have our reasons, and it’s never too late to learn and grow.

Again, I’m sorry about the antibacterial soap. I’ve learned a lot, and I’ll do better.

UPDATE: One day after Attack of the Dad wrote this brave article calling national attention to the antibacterial soap problem, the Food and Drug Administration has ordered soap makers to remove antibacterial chemicals — especially triclosan and triclocarban — from their products. You’re welcome, America.

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