Antibacterial Soaps: Friend or Faux

Antibacterial soaps and cleansers have really increased in availability and popularity in the past few years. These products got their start in hospitals and clinics, where a sterile environment is needed. Many companies now market these products for everyday use in our homes. Consumers are attracted to these products because they claim to kill 99.9 percent of bacteria on your hands. Although this appears to be the benefit to using antibacterial products, research is showing us that these products may cause more harm than good.

Antibacterial products essentially contain antibiotics. This means they are effective at killing bacteria but they don’t kill viruses, which cause colds and the flu. These products kill the most susceptible bacteria, leaving behind the stronger bacteria. This then leads to strains of bacteria that become resistant to antibiotics, such as MRSA that is prevalent in our hospitals and communities. Research has showed us that exposure to bacteria is actually good for us because it strengthens our immune systems. People, especially children, that live in relatively sterile environments are more prone to infections when they are exposed to germs. Because antibacterial products reduce the need for the immune system to be strengthened, researchers are also finding a link between these products and allergies.

Another big concern about antibacterial products is the antibacterial agent used, called triclosan. When triclosan is combined with chlorinated water (plain tap water), it forms chloroform gas. Chloroform vapors depress the central nervous system, acting as an anesthetic. This is especially dangerous if you are bathing in an antibacterial product. Triclosan also accumulates in the fat in your body and causes hormonal problems. It has also been linked to damaged liver function, eczema, asthma, and allergic reactions.

Instant hand sanitizers, such as those made by Purell, also have their own risks. The biggest danger associated with these products is poisoning, especially for children who are attracted to the bright colours and fun scents of many sanitizers. Most instant hand sanitizers contain 60-90 percent alcohol, much more that most hard liquors. Even if a small dose is ingested, it can lead to dizziness, slurred speech, headaches, and even brain damage. The best way to avoid this, besides avoiding these products all together, is to only use the recommended amount of sanitizer and rub hands together until they are dry. Also be sure to keep it out of reach of children, as you would with any cleaning chemical. Other risks include improper use and forming habits. When hand sanitizers are used improperly, they can aggravate existing cuts and scrapes and cause burning and rashes. It’s best to avoid using sanitizers on open wounds (including paper cuts and hangnails) and only use the proper amount (about a dime-size spot). The convenience of sanitizing gels can become dangerous because people tend to forego the process of washing hands with soap and water. If this persists, people may consistently have unclean hands and could potentially spread germs or contract illness. To avoid this, try to only use instant hand sanitizers when it’s not possible to wash hands properly. Also remember that if your hands are visibly dirty, instant hand sanitizers will not be effective and regular hand washing is required. If the convenience of instant hand sanitizers is still something you are looking for there are some non-alcoholic formulas available. Although not as effective as alcohol-based gels, using these products are preferable to not washing your hands at all.

The best way to avoid the possible dangers of antibacterial products and instant hand sanitizers is to use regular soap and water to wash your hands regularly. Use warm water and lather the soap well over the entire surface of your hands for 30 seconds (as long as it takes to sing “Twinkle Little Star” or “Happy Birthday”). Rinse well starting from the wrist to the fingertips.  Dry well with a clean towel from the fingertips (most clean) to the wrist (least clean). Be sure to keep fingertips pointed down through the whole process. This physical action of washing and drying hands is the best at removing dirt and germs. 

Submitted by Dana Woytowich, RN

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