Is Antibacterial Soap Doing More Harm than Good?

Antibacterial soap may seem a useful product, but its introduction into the world of hygiene has brought a number of problems which may cause serious harm.

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Germs are all around us, and we all want to protect the health of ourselves and our families, especially at this time of year where colds and flu viruses spread like wildfire. But a clever marketing ploy has upped our paranoia about germs in recent years, leading many of us to invest in a new product- antibacterial soap. Whilst appearing harmless and even beneficial on the surface, the introduction of this one product into the world of hygiene and sanitation brings with it a number of health risks which are already becoming apparent.

 Antibiotic resistance

 According to scientists, we are in the process of moving into the “post antibiotic era”. Due to the irresponsible use of antibiotics throughout the past century, bacteria has been evolving and growing resistant to the drugs which would previously have killed it easily. Today there is a wide range of diseases which would once have been killed by several different drugs. Now they can only be killed by one, and are steadily beginning to put up more of a fight.

But it isn’t just prescribed medicine causing this problem. All “antibacterial” products have a part to play in this potential health disaster. Hand washes, washing up liquid and kitchen surface cleaners can all be found on the market claiming to”kill 99.9% of bacteria”. While the odds here seem pretty good on the surface, that 0.1% isn’t just an anomaly. It’s a strain of bacteria which refuses to be killed. Instead of dying, it gains resistance to these bacteria-fighting chemicals through its exposure to them, growing stronger and more resilient the more these products are used.

How do antibacterial products cause these problems?

Most antibacterial soap and similar products use an ingredient called triclosan, It works by inhibiting the production of fatty acids needed for the bacteria to live. While this is an effective method of killing most bacteria, a number of issues stem from the way these products are intended to work. When an antibacterial product is applied to an item for cleaning, it leaves a residue, intended to prevent bacteria from returning- keeping the surface cleaner for longer. The rather large downside to this, however, is that prolonged exposure to triclosan gives any surviving bacteria the perfect opportunity to mutate in order to ward off future attacks. Like a smaller scale example of natural selection, any remaining organisms must adapt if they want to survive, and those which do start to pose a much larger threat to human health.

The worst case scenario of this is when antibacterial products are used on the same bacteria targeted by prescription medication, allowing the more dangerous bacteria to gain immunity to both antibacterial products and prescription drugs.

 Allergies

 Another key health problem which stems from antibacterial products is the increase in allergies in recent years. We are born with a number of antibodies which work hard to eradicate invading bacteria, essentially stopping us from dying from minor diseases and infections. However, for these to fully perform, we need a certain amount of exposure to this bacteria during our early years. Inoculations play a large part in this, but by wrapping our children in cotton wool- disinfecting every surface they come into contact with and basically keeping them in the most sterile conditions possible, we hinder the body’s ability to learn which germs or other triggers it needs to be protected against. As a result, a higher number of children and adults than ever before are suffering allergic reactions to stimuli that the body instinctively protects against, in the form of asthma, eczema and more serious reactions.

 How can we keep our homes clean without antibacterial products?

 Before antibacterial products came on the market, we were still able to keep our homes, clothes, dishes and bodies clean and safe. Traditional soap works to kill bacteria, just like today’s new antibacterial products, and has been shown through trials to perform just as well or even better at removing germs from the home. The key difference between the products which promote their antibacterial properties on their labels and those that don’t is the residue they leave behind. Traditional soap, along with natural cleaners such as lemon juice or alcohols kill bacteria whilst removing it physically from the surface, while antibacterial soap kills it and leaves a residue that germs are unable to live in.

There is no clear benefit of choosing an antibacterial product over a traditional cleaning product in terms of keeping your home clean and preventing the spread of diseases, and in fact, if our reliance on such products continues, we may soon find ourselves losing a very precious resource- the ability to protect ourselves from bacteria altogether.

Image sourced: the Italian voice

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