If you were raised by overprotective parents, chances are good that there was always a container of antibacterial hand soap within reach. Whether you just sneezed into your hands or pet the neighborhood dog, you were immediately instructed to apply vigorous amounts of it. While antibacterial soap is a wondrous invention that may have saved countless lives already, in many cases it is doing more harm than good.
As it turns out, you can develop a resistance to antibacterial soap much in the same way that you can develop a resistance to antibiotics. When you combine this with the fact that antibacterial soap makes no distinction in the types of bacteria it targets (good vs. bad), you have a product that should be used sparingly. Unfortunately, both manufacturers and cautious mothers seem to propose its use in a wide variety of situations, most of which are simply wrong.
An antibacterial soap is defined as a cleaning product to which antibacterial ingredients have been added. While most normal hand and body soaps have antibacterial ingredients, these are generally only contained at negligible doses unless the product is clearly marked “antiseptic”, “antibacterial” or “germicidal”.
Triclosan is the most common antibacterial ingredient, and it targets a wide range of bacteria and microbes.
While antibacterial soaps or lotions have been proven to be very capable in removing bacteria (as much as over 99% in some studies), they still have a number of shortcomings.
Antibacterial soap does not have any effect on viruses. Most diseases are caused by either bacteria or viruses, and drugs that are effective at combating one rarely have any effect on the other. Because antibacterial soap is often used at the first sign of a cough, sneeze, or sore throat (regardless of whether or not it is actually caused by bacteria), it is already applied far more than necessary.
This would not be a problem if the body wasn’t capable of building a resistance to antibacterial ingredients and antibiotics. Unfortunately it can build a resistance. For every false alarm, the ingredients become less effective for when they are actually necessary.
To compound the problem, bacteria are capable of themselves developing a resistance to antibacterial ingredients. While there are conflicting studies over whether or not ingredients such as Triclosan can cause bacteria to adapt and mutate, the possibility of inadvertently creating “superbugs” is not one to toy with.
Finally, antibacterial soaps target all bacteria uniformly. Believe it or not, there are actually “good”, non-pathogenic bacteria normally present on your hands at all times. These nonpathogenic bacteria are eliminated with even semi-consistent germicidal soap.
Antibacterial soaps are a great tool, but they should only be used in certain situations. When you are in germ dense environments such as hospitals, crime scenes, or even pet shelters, chances are they will provide a net health benefit.
If your child is in a classroom and a specific bug is going around, antibacterial soap can help. However, do not use it every time you fall down or touch grass or dirt. Soap and water are much better options in this case, they can even fight viruses.