EcoMyths: Does antibacterial soap make us safer than regular soap?

August 13, 2013

(Courtesy of Daisy Simmons)
According to the CDC, we should be washing our hands for at least 20 seconds each time.

When I go to the store to buy a refill for my home liquid soap dispensers, it is nearly impossible to find liquid soaps that are not “antibacterial.” I have heard for years that antibacterial soaps are suspected of helping to create antibiotic resistant bacteria.

So it got us thinking…does using antibacterial soap get us cleaner than regular soap and does it impact the environment the same way that antibiotics do? That is, does it get into natural systems and then back into our own?

To help us sort out the issues about antibacterial soaps, today on Worldview, host Jerome McDonnell and I discussed it with our friend and water expert, Olga Lyandres. Olga is research manager at the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Olga confirmed that antibacterial soap is being found more frequently in our drinking water. In fact, she said that the main active ingredient in antibacterial soap, triclosan, is number 14 on the Alliance’s list of emerging contaminants of concern in water. “There is a misconception that these products are protecting you more than regular soap,” Olga stated, adding “washing hands with regular soap is just as effective at preventing the spread of disease.”

The problem is that triclosan is a broad-range antibacterial, meaning that it kills good bacteria right along with the bad. It is a myth, Olga reminded us, that all bacteria are bad! In fact, we have tons of beneficial bacteria throughout our bodies and in our guts. So much so that when we take prescription antibiotics to cure bacterial infection, we can get stomach upset for awhile because our good bacteria is being beaten back at the same time as the disease-inducing bacteria.

Hand washing is a worldwide priority for promoting health and preventing disease. The Centers for Disease Control and the Global Partnership for Hand Washing are among the groups that promote Global Hand Washing Day every year on October 15th. This initiative promotes washing hands with plain old soap, instead of just plain water. They do not at all promote antibacterial soap. Many people around the world are unaware of the need to wash hands with soap, especially after using the toilet to remove traces of fecal matter and the germs associated with it. Hand washing with soap prevents disease by removing bacteria and viruses from hands.

To learn more about this myth check out the full EcoMyth here.