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Antibacterial Soap – A Well Marketed Fallacy

The Urban Apothecary - Soap

“Somehow, through marketing or misinformation we’ve been led to believe that if we get rid of bacteria we’ll improve our lives and our health”, “In fact the opposite is true” says Dr Martin Blaser, director of the human microbiome program at New York University and author of Missing Microbes: how the overuse of antibiotics is fueling our modern day plagues.

Poor old bacteria. It seems to have gotten itself into a bad rap, particularly in the last few decades. Just the mention of the word will make some individuals cringe. Its clear that an opportunity for greed via misinformation was exploited. The unfortunate demonisation of all bacteria is inaccurate and may cost us in the war against pathogenic germs. In fact some expert argue it already has.

Lets face it, we live in a germaphobic world. The surge in popularity of hand sanitizers and antibacterial products continues to grow as the terrified masses seek to protect themselves from illness by constantly “sterilizing” themselves. Unfortunately, these well-intentioned efforts are misguided. The fact of the matter is bacteria are everywhere, however most of them are either neutral or offer some benefits. Take for example the “friendly bacteria” on your skin (known as flora or microbiota). These microbes play a role in protecting you from disease, as they compete with pathogenic bacteria that try to invade your body. There are many mechanisms that may be involved such as :

  • directly competing for nutrients and space.
  • secreting chemicals (bacteriocins) to combat the invaders
  • immune system stimulation
  • altering skin PH to make for unfavorable growing conditions

“Your skin flora plays a very beneficial role in your overall health. One can think of them as a biological force field of sorts! “

To date, there is no strong evidence that suggests using antibacterial products offer any additional benefits or protection. To many this statement can seem radical, however in response I will say, “The power of marketing”. Still not convinced? Lets look at some facts.

Most antibacterial soaps contain an antimicrobial agent called triclosan, which is touted as the active ingredient. These soaps are not what they seem for many reasons, here are some to consider:

  • The overuse of antibiotics and biocides, such as triclosan can create resistance to clinically important antimicrobials. There is evidence of triclosan-adapted cross resistance to antibiotics amongst several bacteria species. This resistance could potentially make it difficult to treat a life threatening infection.
  • Triclosan resistance has been seen in dermal, intestinal , and environmental organisms.
  • Triclosan is a known endocrine disruptor, that may alter hormone regulation (FDA).
  • Triclosan can pass through the skin and is bio accumulative. The US centers for disease control and prevention detected triclosan in the urine of 75% of those tested (2517 people ages 6 +).
  • New data finds a link between extensive use of triclosan allergy and asthma problems amongst children. (Clayton 2011)
  • In the environment, triclosan reacts to form dioxins which are also bio accumulative and toxic.
  • Triclosan is highly toxic to aquatic animals, and particularly green algae. Green algae are important organisms as they are the beginning of the food chain for many animals. Thus the continuous discharge of triclosan into our waters will further disrupt our delicate ecosystem.
  • The “anti bacterial “ action encourages a poor hand washing routine. Most people will not scrub their hands as they believe the soap is killing germs on contact. The majority of hand washers tend to do a quick lather and rinse. This is ineffective though, as triclosan requires a minimum contact time of 2 minutes to be fully effective. When is the last time you saw someone scrub their hands for that long?
  • It is  not clear whether triclosan containing products are beneficial for those with Immuno compromised conditions.

One of my main areas of concerns is the use of such products on children.  It is well known that early exposure to microbes is important for the development of the immune system, however despite good intentions from parents, children nowadays are way too clean. All too often i see youngsters literally being bathed in disinfectant wipes. If you ask me? they should be rolling around in dirt and eating it! One study dubbed the “hygeine hypothesis” states that lack of exposure to microbes leads to an increased risk of autoimmune and allergic diseases. It also, states that early exposure lowered susceptibility to asthma, inflammatory immune cells in the lungs and colon and Inflammatory bowel diseases (such as IBS) in adult life. These are all diseases that are increasing in prevalence in our societies, coincidence?

Consider the following table:



Looking at the numbers, It is easy to see how generally,antibacterial soap is no more efficient than regular soap at preventing disease and reducing bacteria levels on hands. In my opinion, the mechanical act of rubbing your hands using regular soap to dislodge bacteria and grime is arguably more effective, in both the long & short term,

“The record does not currently contain sufficient data to show that there is any additional benefit from the use of consumer antiseptic hand or body washes compared to non antibacterial soap and water” (FDA, December 2013).

Unfortunately  the over use and availability of anti bacterial products does not seem to be diminishing, despite the evidence against them. More studies need to be done on the mechanisms of resistance as well as how often they occur. Also more needs to be done in terms of educating the public on the potential hazards of said products.

So for now its best to stick with old fashioned soap and scrub away! My personal preference is to use unscented pure liquid Castile soap, and add my own essential oils for added aromatherapy benefit.

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