The (other) problems with anti-bacterial soap

Anti-bacterial soap is usually made with the antibiotic Triclosan — which targets a wide range of bacteria. Most of you are probably well-educated enough on antibiotic-resistant bacteria to guess that anti-bacterial soap may not be the best thing for humanity in the long term. But at Mind the Science Gap, David Faulkner hits some points I was not aware of. For instance, Triclosan soap might not even be that effective at preventing the spread of disease. And its risks go beyond antibiotic resistance.


  1. Triclosan isn’t an antibiotic, so it would be more likely to evolve triclosan-resistant bacteria.  But our immune system is a much better solution than chemistry, and this article doesn’t even get into the possibility that products like triclosan might actually cause the young immune system to malfunction.

    1. Triclosan isn’t an antibiotic…

      How so? Triclosan is bacteriostatic at lower and kills bacteria at higher concentrations, by interfering with a reductase enzyme they have and humans don’t. That’s the sort of thing antibiotic means.

      1. Agreed, it’s marketed as something other than an antibiotic, so people think of it as a supersoap.  Has the function, and should likely be used as sparingly as other antibiotics.  Scratch that, it and other antibiotics should be used more sparingly then they are.

      2. Hey I guess I was wrong.  I thought antibiotics were always produced by a living thing, like a penicillin mold.

    2. Without looking up the chemistry…bear in mind that a chemical isn’t necessarily an antibiotic just because it kills bacteria. It is bacteriocidal.
      I believe an antibiotic is in theory, a biological organism that kills bacteria. Although many antibiotics are now synthetic, they are based upon organic bactericides.

  2.  I’m a Canary. That means I’m hypersensitive to certain chemicals, only a few of which I know because every breath I take indoors is a cocktail of random gases from construction materials, toiletries, laundry products, etc. Hand sanitizers ALWAYS make me sick. I was normal until I was 35. Am I a genetic aberration or an omen? Is our propensity for adding poorly tested chemicals to our environment destroying our future?

      1. There has been an increase in these canaries, for no known reason:

        I may be reading a snide implication that isn’t intended in your …

        but it wouldn’t hurt to keep an open mind that there may be an environmental change that can be making some people sick, some more than others. 

        1. Not disproving your assertion (this is the first I’ve heard of the term “canaries” in this context), but the paper you link to does not appear to have anything to do with what you’re saying.

          The article is talking about an increase in food allergies, and this can have all sorts of causes. Prominent ones discussed a lot recently include an increase in the use of antibiotics, harming gut flora (see Mark’s next post); changes in how babies are introduced to foods; changes in breast feeding practices (gut flora again, see this week’s Sunday Times), etc.

          You (or fusionkitty) seem to be saying that there are a growing number of “canaries” with a hypersensitivity to certain chemicals. That’s fine, but isn’t supported by the article.

          1. The increase of food allergies has no known definitive cause.  Food is chemical, moreover, it’s a chemical that is benign to the vast majority of the population, but adversely effects some.   I see parallels in the two, though of course it could be a completely different mechanism(s), or multiple mechanisms causing different varieties of each syndrome. 

    1. Are you able to drink alcohol without reactions (beyond the usual one of drunkenness)?  I wonder because all the hand sanitizers I’ve seen use ethanol as the antiseptic agent.  They’re basically just alcohol + something to thicken it to a gel or foam, so you can usefully wipe your hands with them.

          1. I understand that. I was providing context to part of what you said. It wasn’t an argument or anything. They’re saying Triclosan is the problem, you say that alcohol-based sanitizers don’t have it, I said that they have their own problems. Perhaps someone comes along in the future and learns something; it wasn’t necessarily for you. Hope that’s ok. :)

  3. The picture captions are awesome; thanks for the link, Maggie!

    I’ve never been able to understand why anyone would want that stuff on their body.  “Here’s this stuff that kills all the beneficial microorganisms found on humans!  Wanna smear some on?  You don’t even have to wash it away before you touch your sandwich, mmmmm mmmmm delicious cellular death paste!”

    It doesn’t seem any different than rubbing down with gasoline, honestly.

    1. I was momentarily afraid that i had been using “myriad” wrong my entire life.  Then I looked it up its usage on Merriam-Webster…

      Recent criticism of the use of myriad as a noun, both in the plural form myriads and in the phrase a myriad of, seems to reflect a mistaken belief that the word was originally and is still properly only an adjective. As the entries here show, however, the noun is in fact the older form, dating to the 16th century. The noun myriad has appeared in the works of such writers as Milton (plural myriads) and Thoreau (a myriad of), and it continues to occur frequently in reputable English. There is no reason to avoid it.

  4. A couple of weeks ago when I was in the hospital I noticed the nurses rubbing their hands gleefully whenever they came into my room. Since they were usually coming in to draw blood it seemed like they were gleeful at the thought of stabbing me.

    I mentioned this to one of them and she explained that really they were just rubbing in the antibiotic lotion they’d just put on out in the hall.

    That explanation wasn’t any more comforting. 

    1. Antiseptic rather than antibiotic, maybe?  The hospitals around me have alcohol-based hand sanitizer pumps mounted on just about every available surface,  and lots of signs encouraging you to use them liberally.

      1. Yes, I was getting my terms mixed up there, although I’m fairly certain the nurse I spoke to said “antibiotic”. I hope that, being a nurse, she knows the difference, but it seems that a lot of people (including myself) make the mistake of using the terms interchangeably.

      2. Don’t do it!  Use soap and water, and use a clean washcloth on your face before bed and again in the morning, instead.

        Unnecessary exposure to highly volatile compounds is asking for Parkinson’s disease or worse.  Soap and water works.  And hospitals are probably the worst place possible to get advice on management of surface microorganisms, if history is any guide.

        1. I’m not going to get too concerned about ethanol on my skin.  Probably 99% of the ethanol evaporates within seconds.  I can’t imagine what you’d have to do to make your actual ethanol intake from hand sanitizer add up to even what you’d get from one small glass of wine a day.

          1. Well, you’re right that the ethanol itself is unlikely to be a major hazard, but volatile disinfectants (including ethanol) will carry other compounds through your skin, that normally cannot penetrate it.

            The footnotes to this paper give dozens of links to peer-reviewed studies showing that ethanol is a penetration enhancer that moves stuff from the outside of your dirty hands to the inside of your body.

            Soap and water works better so why take unnecessary risks?  Save your risk-taking for things that are fun, like skydiving and extreme sports, instead of wasting it on enriching megacorporations peddling unnecessary nostrums.

    2. Technically it would be Bacteriocidal hand-sanitizer gel. Not an antibiotic and not a lotion.
      The basis for it is a different line of defense that can quickly be used by staff when one is in between a full, soap and water, 30 second minimum hand wash. The gel is used only when handwashing is needed and there is not a biological contaminant visible on the skin. The only exception is with patients who have Clostridium Difficile infections, the hand sanitizer is ineffective against that organism,

      In the hospital, higher efficacy industrial cleansing products are appropriate because of the range and higher possibility of bacterial transmission.

      In general it is the friction applied during handwashing and the rinsing away by water that is the effective aspect bacteria-treatment. This negates the need for special anti-biotic soaps at home and for geenral use.

    3. Hand cleaning before touching patients (and at many other times) is required by various healthcare regulatory entities, including the Joint Commission, to cut down on number of often-life-threatening hospital-acquired infections. There are hand washing stations (either soap and water, or antiseptic pumps, as dragonfrog notes) near every patient room.

  5. Ever since the anti-triscolan crusade began in the news, I’ve been checking the backs of all the soap brands we buy and I yet to see/identify it. I’ve also looked at other soaps at the store and found zip. Is it even used that often anymore? Does it go by some other–totally different–name?

    Or have I just lucked out and bought the right stuff?

  6. I was told to use antibacterial soap (Dial) for my body for body acne issues by a doctor years ago, but I try to stay away from antibacterial soap for the hands. Does it make a difference? Does antibacterial soap actually help my pimples? Time to do some research…

    1. You should definitely stay away from using it to treat skin issues. Among other things, it gets rid of all the bacteria, and does not get rid of the fungal cultures that are on all skin. What does keep the fungal cultures down? The “good” bacteria, that you’re killing with antibacterial soap.

      This is why antibacterial soaps can make problems such as athlete’s foot worse.

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