Antibacterial vs. Plain Soap: A Wash | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Antibacterial vs. Plain Soap: A Wash

What goes better with water than soap?

And with fall and flu season right around the corner, keeping clean is going to become increasingly important.

Antibacterial soaps are marketed as an extra defense against those bugs going around the office or your kid's school.

But new research finds antibacterial soap is not any better than plain soap at keeping us from getting sick. 

And some scientists and doctors worry there might be risks to widespread use of antibacterial products.

The Environment Report's Rebecca Williams has more.

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"Make the frosting for the carrot cake?"

"You want to make the frosting for the carrot cake? Okay, Jasmine, bring up your chair so you can wash your hands."

(Sound of Jasmine pulling a chair over & washing up)

Margo Lowenstein says she's just a little extra careful about germs. She never borrows somebody else's ink pen during flu season. She opens public bathroom doors with a paper towel on her way out. But her friends call her a germ-phobe:

"You know, you go to a birthday party and some kid blows out a cake and you just see the spit flying on the top of the cake, that just kinda grosses me out... so I usually take the cake but I won't eat that top layer of frosting (laughs)."

Lowenstein is a soap marketer's dream customer. Market researchers say Americans have been getting more worried about germs. And as a result we've been buying more soap and hand sanitizer and antibacterial products.

Antibacterial soaps have been around since the late 1940s. But the market research firm Euromonitor International says in recent years, germ-phobia has given manufacturers a reason to ramp up the antibacterial products in their lines.

There are some studies that estimate that about 70% of liquid soaps on store shelves have antibacterial ingredients in them. Ingredients such as a chemical called triclosan.

Allison Aiello teaches epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Aiello is lead author of a paper in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases. She examined more than two dozen studies on antibacterial soaps containing triclosan. She says triclosan kills bacteria by going after the bacterium's cell wall:

"The cell wall cannot be kept intact anymore; it's not able to survive."

But Aiello says there's a growing body of evidence that even though antibacterial soap kills bacteria... it's no better than regular soap at preventing illness. Regular soap doesn't kill bacteria, but Aiello says it works just as well at getting that harmful bacteria off your hands:

"Regular soap, it has a surfactant in it and what it does is it allows bacteria to be dislodged from hands and then the motion you're using under water helps dislodge it and make it go down the drain, basically."

Aiello says it's important to note that the soap studies were done with basically healthy people. She says more research needs to be done to find out if antibacterial soaps could be more effective for elderly people or people with compromised immune systems.

But Aiello says generally, for healthy people, antibacterial soaps are no better than plain soaps at keeping you healthy.

And she says there could be risks to antibacterial products. She says there's evidence from lab studies that antibacterial soaps might be adding to the emergence of super-bugs: bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics:

"In the laboratory setting, it's clear that there are mechanisms that can lead to antibiotic resistance when bacteria are exposed to triclosan."

Aiello says they haven't seen this play out for antibacterial soaps in the real world yet. But she says researchers need to keep an eye on it because antibiotic resistance might take some time to develop.

The soap industry dismisses the idea that antibacterial soaps might have something to do with antibiotic resistance.

Brian Sansoni is with the Soap and Detergent Association:

"The last thing we want to see is people discouraged from using beneficial products. Antibacterial soaps have proven benefits, they're used safely and effectively by millions of people every day. Consumers should continue to use these products with confidence."

The Food and Drug Administration has the final word on antibacterial soaps. But they're still trying to figure out what to say about them. The FDA has been trying to come up with rules for the products for more than 30 years. Right now there are no formal rules about the levels of antibacterial chemicals in soaps. And there aren't any rules about how the products can be marketed or labeled.

There's one thing both the soap industry and doctors agree on - Americans don't lather up often enough with any kind of soap. A new study found one out of every three men walk out of the bathroom without washing their hands. Women did better than the guys, but still, about one of every ten women didn't wash their hands either.

Experts say the best way to avoid getting sick is to wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds. That's as long as it takes to sing the happy birthday song twice.

For the Environment Report, I'm Rebecca Williams.

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