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Abandon Antibacterial

Senior biology major Patrick Hooper wrote this op-ed piece for the “Writing About Science” class offered in May Term 2012

What word first comes to mind when you hear the word germ? Most people will think of the word bad. Germs are bad. We learn from a young age that germs cause sickness and disease.  If you ask most people how to prevent sickness, more often than not you will hear the old adage: wash your hands. According to the Centers of Disease Control, the simple act of washing your hands with soap and warm water rids your hands of illness-causing bacteria, effectively protecting you from harm.  Scan the shelves of any American grocery store and you will undoubtedly encounter liquid soaps emblazoned with the word antibacterial.  Less than two decades ago, only a handful of antibacterial products graced shelves in America. Today, almost 75% of liquid soaps contain the compound triclosan or similar antimicrobial agents. Despite the benevolent intentions of antibacterial soaps, I urge you to stop using them. Why, you ask? Simply, they may cause more harm than good. 

Soaps are amphipathic, meaning each molecule of soap has a part that loves water (hydrophilic) and a part that avoids water at all costs (hydrophobic).  Due to its dual nature, soap can interact with both fat and water, forming bubbles.  When you have grease on your hands, part of the soap can interact with the grease and encapsulate the fat inside a water bubble.  This bubble also captures bacteria, banishing the little critters from your hands to a watery grave, all without the use of antibacterial agents. The extreme increase of antibacterial compounds in soap reflects the prevalent idea that adding them to soap will aid the battle against bacteria. However, scientific studies indicate otherwise. For example, a study performed at the Leicester School of Pharmacy at the University of London determined that antibacterial soap did not rid the skin of any more bacteria than regular soap. The act of washing your hands with regular soap sufficiently reduces the amount of bacteria without an additional antibacterial component. 

Not only are antibacterial soaps no more effective than regular soap, they may actually pose health problems.  Many people may have heard the word “superbug” in reference to a recent spike in antibiotic resistant bacterial strains.  But what does that have to do with soap?  Use of antibacterial soaps can create triclosan-resistant bacteria.  What this means for us is that compounds that used to kill bacteria fail to do so. Some studies indicate Escherichia coli (commonly known as just E. coli) and the staph infection causing bacteria Staphylococcus aureus become resistant to triclosan with increased exposure. 

Not only does the use of antibacterials confer resistance to compounds like triclosan in soaps, a study performed at the Tufts University School of Medicine demonstrated that resistance to antibacterials found in soaps could also induce resistance to antibiotics like penicillin. This means bad news for anyone who has ever had an infection that required antibiotics. Using antibacterial soaps could mean relief from an ear infection or tonsillitis might require a lot more work to treat than before.  While the ways as to exactly how bacteria become resistant to these components still remains unclear, no one debates the threat of resistant bacteria from antibacterial use. The continued use of these products pose problems in the future of health medicine. It’s only a matter of time before the bacteria that cause strep throat can’t be beat by a week’s worth of antibiotics. Scary, right?

Antibacterial soaps, while well intentioned, miss the mark in my book.  Regular soaps can scrub away bacteria just as well and don’t confer resistance to our bacterial foe.  Everyone wants to stay healthy, including me, and washing your hands is undoubtedly a major block against illness.  But next time you go to your local grocery store to buy hand soap, grab the normal soap and abandon antibacterial.