Written by Beth Corcoran, Contributing Writer
I love this time of year, when the leaves start to change colors and the air turns crisp at night. But as I enjoy the lovely colors and smells of this season, a part of me sighs deeply as I realize we are once again entering the time of year when it seems someone is always sick in my house.
This is also the time that TV commercials start to heavily push the use of hand sanitizers and soaps. But the question is not a matter of which brand we should choose. The question is whether or not these items are truly necessary in the fight against germs.
So let’s dive right in and take a look at what actually happens when you clean your hands with antibacterial soap.
Why Antibacterial Soap Came to Be
Soaps containing antibacterial chemicals got their start in hospitals and clinics. Those are both places where a sterile environment is necessary and much appreciated. It has only been in the recent years that these soaps have been marketed and sold to the household consumer.
My dad is a surgeon, and when I was growing up, he would always come home smelling heavily of the antibacterial soaps that they use when they scrub in for surgery. So when my family was able to buy soaps at the store that smelled like hospital, I personally thought it was pretty neat because I, too, could smell like I had just scrubbed in for surgery—which was a dream of mine as a child.
Of course, antibacterial soaps have been desirable for other reasons than just making you smell like a hospital. Consumers buy the products because they claim to be effective in killing up to 99.9% of the bacteria on your hands. That is an attractive claim when you have lots of kids at home and illness is sweeping through your town.
Although there appears to be a benefit to buying antibacterial products, research is starting to show that these soaps may actually cause more harm than good.
Potential Harm From Using Antibacterial Products
- The antibacterial chemicals are essentially antibiotics. They are effective in killing bacteria, but do not kill viruses, which are the cause of colds and the flu.
- The most susceptible bacteria strains are killed when washing your hands, leaving behind the stronger bacteria. This can lead to strains of bacteria resistant to antibiotics, such as the MRSA that we hear so much about in the news.
- Research has shown that exposure to bacteria can actually be good because it strengthens your immune system. People—especially children—who live in a particularly sterile environment are more prone to infections when they do have exposure to germs.
- According to the CDC, researchers are finding a link between allergies and the use of antibacterial soaps. Again, the soaps reduce the need for the immune system to be strengthened, which can cause allergy problems as well.
Photo credit Arlington County
Concerns About Triclosan
On top of the concerns already mentioned, there are increasing concerns about triclosan, which is the antibacterial ingredient in most commercial hand soaps and cleansers. Here are a few:
- When mixed with chlorinated water (plain tap water), triclosan and the chlorine form chloroform gas. This is especially dangerous if you are using an antibacterial product for bathing.
- Triclosan has been shown to cause endocrine disruption, which essentially means that it can disrupt hormones. The triclosan can accumulate in the fat in your body and cause hormonal problems. It has also been shown to damage liver function.
- Triclosan has been linked to eczema, asthma and allergic reactions.
As you can see, antibacterial soaps (and cleaners, too!) can potentially cause much more harm than good. Of course, I am not talking about the use of it in hospitals or use by people with special health concerns that require its use. But for everyday use, antibacterial soaps—especially with triclosan—can be a very unhealthy option.
So is there any hope for cold and flu season? What can we do with all those little germy hands that come home from playing outside?
The good news is that scientists show that use of good, old fashioned, regular soap is just as effective in washing bacteria and viruses off of our hands as antibacterial soap. All you have to do is lather up and scrub well. The germ fighting power comes from scrubbing thoroughly and effectively rather than from any chemical additives. This way you can get rid of most of the germs without knowingly exposing yourself to potentially harmful chemicals.
Here’s to happy handwashing this winter!!