Are antibacterial hand soaps linked to antibiotic resistant bacteria?

One simple way of fighting off germs involves the use of soap and water. (Credit: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

One simple way of fighting off germs involves the use of soap and water. (Credit: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

Washing your hands with soap and water—good way to fight off disease, right? So washing with antibacterial hand soaps would be even better. That may be the logical conclusion that many people draw, but it may not be correct. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently announced that antibacterial hand soaps may not be better than plain soap and water when it comes to fighting disease and keeping us healthy. Are these products contributing to antibiotic resistant bacteria as well, which have been causing more and more concern among public health officials in recent years?

Germ Theory

According to Questia’s introduction to germ theory, this “pathogenic theory of medicine, postulates that micro-organisms are the cause of many diseases. Although originally controversial, Louis Pasteur in the 19th century proved beyond doubt that harmful bacteria within the body are the cause of many diseases. His research is now regarded as one of the central foundations of modern medicine, especially in the areas of immunology and modern hygienic practices in both hospitals and wider society.”

So if germs are bad, killing more of them with antibacterial soap sounds pretty good. According to a CNN staff article updated on December 17, 2013, “FDA examining antibacterial soaps, body washes,” these soaps may not be any more effective in our fight against disease. In fact, the agency released a statement saying, “some data suggest that long-term exposure to certain active ingredients used in antibacterial products — for example, triclosan (liquid soaps) and triclocarban (bar soaps) — could post health risks, such as bacterial resistance or hormonal effects.”

Bad for people AND the environment

Not only may antibacterial hand soaps be bad for people, they may also be bad for the environment. The soaps commonly contain two antibacterial chemicals—triclocarban (TCC) and triclosan (TCS). Kaye Spector blogged for Ecowatch on October 24, 2013, in “Environmental and Health Impacts of Antibacterial Soap” that “Soaps containing TCC and TCS probably pose little risk to people washing their hands, but if the chemicals and their transformation products are introduced to humans through food and water supplies, this may eventually create health problems.”

In addition, some believe that the chemicals in antibacterial hand soap may be aiding antibiotic resistant bacteria. Spector’s post reports that the Council on Scientific Affairs of the American Medical Association feels that people should stop using antimicrobials that have shown resistance unless evidence can prove they are not impacting the public health and that they also do prevent infection.

Targeting antibiotic resistant bacteria

While antibacterial hand soaps may not be keeping us healthier, there is also the risk that overuse of antibiotics are making certain infections deadlier. Charlotte Tucker wrote in the May/June 2013 issue of The Nation’s Health,CDC Calls on Health Professionals to Target Antibiotic-Resistance Bacteria,” about the increasing problem of bacteria becoming resistant to even last-resort antibiotics, such as carbapenems, so the bacteria have become known as carbapenem-resistant enterobacteriaceae (CRE).

Although this type of bacteria is not as prevalent as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, health professionals are still concerned. Fighting CRE involves making hospitals more adapt at spotting the antibiotic resistant bacteria, putting in place more stringent prevention measures and “restricting the use of carbapenems so that bacteria are less likely to grow resistant.”

Two other factors that are increasing the problem are the lack of new antibiotics being developed and the overuse of antibiotics on farms. “About 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used for agricultural purposes, which may speed up the process by which bacteria develop resistance,” wrote Tucker. 

Obviously more research needs to be done—to uncover ways to beat these antibiotic resistant bacteria and to learn whether or not there is any value in antibacterial hand soaps.

Want to learn more about germ theory or other health care related issues? Check out Questia—particularly the section on health and medicine.

Are anti-bacterial soaps causing us more harm than good? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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