Make no mistake about it. They are everywhere. Your body is swimming in them, the keyboard on your computer is blanketed, and that five-dollar bill you handed to the cashier before eating your scone is a virtual minefield. Bacteria are omnipresent.
I have two friends with vastly different approaches to these microscopic threats. One believes the best way to beat them is to commune with them and recommends—only half jokingly—eating off the kitchen floor once a week to build up the ol’ immune system. The other friend washes his hands incessantly and refuses to take public transportation for fear of infection. He tries not to touch anything. And although this approach is stringent, the truth is, we Americans are becoming more and more like friend number two. We open restroom doors with paper towels and disinfect after every handshake. In short, we are becoming a nation of germaphobes.
Fearing the insidious little creatures that make us sick but knowing we can’t dodge them all, we aim to destroy them with an arsenal of antibacterial hand soaps, detergents, toothpaste, and even mattresses and toys. It seems logical to want total eradication of the microorganisms that cause illness, infection, and in extreme circumstances, death—unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
More Harm Than Good
For starters, there is little proof that the antibacterial soap you buy at the drug store actually kills the most-dreaded microbes: S. aureus (staph) and E. coli. Plus, living in a disinfected bubble can actually be bad for your health and the environment. Many experts believe that too much sanitization weakens the immune system and may create lethal superbugs that are antibiotic resistant. If that’s not enough, the bacteria-killing chemicals go down the drain and into our waterways, harming wildlife and potentially ending up back in our bodies where they can present health risks.
Although you have likely heard at least some of this before, you probably still reach for the antibacterial soap to clean your bathroom and wash your hands. The psychological draw is undeniable. In fact, scientists’ warnings have not dampened the burgeoning market. Antibacterial products are a one billion dollar industry and make up nearly 80 percent of all liquid soaps. In 2003, there were fewer than 200 antibacterial products on the market; currently there are over 3,000.
The biggest—and most publicized—concern is whether antibacterial products, like the overuse of antibiotics, will eventually create more of the untreatable bacteria we fear. By creating a hostile environment, antibacterial agents promote strains of bacteria with certain mutations that allow them to survive. These superbugs are also more likely to be immune to antibiotics. The most commonly used antimicrobial in soaps—triclosan—has already shown resistance to S. aureous.
No Better Than Regular Soap
Still, the most important piece of information when you are staring at an aisle full of cleansers is whether or not the antibacterial soaps fulfill their promise. According to the Food and Drug Administration and the American Medical Association, they are no more effective at preventing infections than regular soap. The bacteria-killing chemicals in common over-the-counter soaps are too diluted to kill the heartier microbes that pose the most threat to humans; they do not present any advantage over using regular soap. Plus, the average person is a lazy hand washer. Most of us wash our hands for less than ten seconds—five seconds is the norm—which gives the toxins little chance to bind to the bacteria and do their job. In one study, a standard strain of E. coli had to be bathed in store-bought antibacterial soap for a minimum of two hours before being killed. Mutated strains survived for twice as long.
So, these antibacterial agents, having failed at their mission, are then washed down the drain where they go on to cause serious environmental problems. Even after water purification, a large percentage of the toxins remain, entering our waterways and our bodies. A 2007 study detected triclosan in seventeen of twenty-one people. The chemicals were found in blood samples, urine, and breast milk. While it’s not yet clear that these chemicals negatively impact humans, animal studies show that triclocarban interferes with rat reproduction and triclosan triggers tadpoles to mature into frogs at a much more rapid rate. Because of their unknown effects in humans, many scientists advise against taking the risk. There is also evidence that when triclosan is mixed with chlorine—even the low levels common in drinking water—it creates a toxin that has been identified as a probable carcinogen.
While the research on the negative effects of antibacterial soaps is far from definitive, the evidence that they are no better at preventing illness than regular soap is. So why use them? It doesn’t mean giving up on hygiene. Don’t stop washing your hands—or start eating off the floor, for that matter. Buy a regular bar or hand soap that doesn’t contain unnecessary chemicals or look for brands with natural ingredients. And when you are washing your hands with your non-antibacterial soap, do it right. Lather up for ten seconds and rub hard. Exfoliation is the best way to rid your skin of bacteria. Most importantly, until more is known about antimicrobial chemicals, avoid them if you are pregnant or have an infant. If triclosan and triclocarban are dangerous to humans, the smaller the body, the greater the harm they can cause.
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Photo source: Lars Klintwall Malmqvist (cc)