By Matthew Hoffman, MD
WebMD Feature provided in collaboration with Healthy Child Healthy World
Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD
Antibacterial. There’s something about the very word that provides a feeling of protection. After all, germs are everywhere. Health experts tell us to wash our hands often to avoid illness. So why not use a product that seems to give an extra edge against the bad guys?
Fueled by demand, antibacterial soaps and cleansers have become the dominant products in their category. Today, more than three-quarters of soaps contain an antibacterial ingredient. We talk with our wallets and manufacturers have listened, adding antibacterial chemicals to toothpaste, socks, plastic kitchenware, and even toys.
Still, keeping your home clean doesn’t mean you have to use these products, experts tell WebMD. Antibacterial and harsh cleansers are usually unnecessary. These products don’t work any better than regular cleansers –and they damage the environment and potentially place our long-term health at risk.
Allison Aiello, PhD, assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan, headed a group that analyzed several studies comparing people who washed their hands with regular or antibacterial soap. In all but one trial, she tells WebMD, “there was no difference between groups, either in bacteria on the hands or in rates of illness.” In a single study, people who used antibacterial soap did have fewer bacteria on their hands, but only if they washed for 30 seconds, 18 times a day, for five days straight.
Why don’t antibacterial soaps work any better than regular soap? They do prevent illness in health care settings, where patients are more vulnerable to germs. But the antibacterial ingredients in hospital-strength soaps are up to 10 times the concentration of store-bought soap, according to Aiello.
“Also, antibacterial ingredients don’t kill viruses, which cause the vast majority of minor illnesses people experience,” she adds. That includes colds, flu, and stomach bugs.
Aiding the Rise of Superbugs?
Early evidence suggests that the explosion in use of antibacterial cleansers may not be benign.
Antibacterial ingredients have become so popular, they’re literally in our blood. In addition to lead and pesticides, the CDC now periodically monitors levels of triclosan, the most common antibacterial agent, in randomly selected Americans.
At CDC’s last check in 2004, “about three-quarters of adults and children older than six had detectable levels of triclosan,” according to Antonia Calafat, PhD, lead research chemist with CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health.
People in higher income brackets had the highest levels, Calafat tells WebMD. “Most likely it was related to use of products containing triclosan, although unfortunately we didn’t have that kind of lifestyle information from the participants,” she says. Triclosan can enter the bloodstream through the skin, the mucous membranes in the mouth, or the intestines.
Could a daily dose of triclosan cause health problems? Experimental studies show that triclosan can cause bacteria to become resistant to antibiotics in test tubes. So far, no one knows whether that leads to the same result in hospitals or homes. Some researchers, though, believe resistant “superbugs” created by widespread antibacterial soap use could be a real possibility.
Aiello’s research “showed a trend toward more resistant bacteria” on peoples’ hands after one year of using antibacterial soap. The finding didn’t reach the threshold for statistical proof, but Aiello says, “that might only be because we didn’t follow people long enough.”