Antibacterial Soap No Better than Plain Soap

Many people use antibacterial soaps every day, thinking that they will help to kill germs like those that cause MRSA and keep them healthier. However, a University of Michigan public health professor thinks that they might not work any better over regular soaps. On top of this, the may actually make some antibiotics less effective.

Allison Aiello did a study on whether or not antibacterial soaps work better than regular ones. The surprising results that her team came up with were that plain soap prevents infectious illness just as well as antibacterial soap. Besides this, the antibacterial soaps that you can buy in the store do not remove any more bacteria than regular soap.

“What we are saying is that these e-coli could survive in the concentrations that we use in our (consumer formulated) antibacterial soaps,” Aiello said. “What it means for consumers is that we need to be aware of what’s in the products. The soaps containing triclosan used in the community setting are no more effective than plain soap at preventing infectious illness symptoms, as well as reducing bacteria on the hands.”

What is Triclosan?

Most antibacterial soaps contain the ingredient triclosan, a powerful wide spectrum antibacterial and antifungal agent Because of the way that triclosan reacts in the cells it may even cause bacteria to become resistant to amoxicillin a commonly used antibiotic. While this has not been seen on a large scale yet, e-coli bacteria used in lab experiments started showing resistance to the antibiotics after being exposed to .1% weight per volume triclosan soap. This could lead to more antibiotic-resistant super bugs like MRSA.

What this means is that at the concentrations triclosan is found in your average antibacterial soap, the e-coli bacteria could still survive on your hands. What that means for you the consumer is that there is no real reason to spend extra money on antibacterial soaps, when the regular kind work just as well at reducing bacteria.

The study (abstract here) was published in the August 2007 edition of “Clinical Infectious Diseases.” Over the course of the study, the team investigated 27 studies done between 1980 and 2006. The studies found that soaps containing triclosan, in the range that you can typically buy at the store, were not any more effective than regular soap. In hospital settings, triclosan is effective at reducing illness and bacteria; however, the concentration in professional formulation is much higher than what the average consumer can buy.

How It Works

The way that triclosan works is by interfering with the pathway in the bacteria that keeps the cell wall intact. Without this ability, the bacterium dies. However, because of the way it works, mutation can occur. If this happens, there is the potential that triclosan will no longer be effective at killing the bacteria. In the case of a super bug like MRSA, this is one more weapon from the arsenal lost, leaving doctors with even fewer ways to kill the bacteria.

Keep in mind that there are different antiseptic products on the market, and not all of them use triclosan others may use alcohol or bleach. These were not investigated during the study.

Carcinogenic Soap?

A 2005 report has suggested that triclosan may also combine with the chlorine in tap water and form chloroform gas, which the EPA regards as a probable human carcinogen. Though the study demonstrated that the amount of chloroform generated was less than amounts often present in chlorinated drinking waters, you may want to consider this as well when shopping for soap.

The bottom line, though, is this- when washing your hands to prevent diseases like MRSA, it is not so much the soap that matters. The scrubbing action itself, combined with the cleaning action of the soap, will help wash most of the bacteria down the drain. Complimenting your hand washing routine with alcohol-based hand sanitizers can help finish off any germs that might remain and add to your protection.

Image: Geishaboy500- Creative Commons License