Ever wondered if there’s a difference between regular soap and the antibacterial kind? Maybe in smell, but not in how effectively they clean.

Angela Cesere
Triclosan attacks the bacteria, but the efflux pump ejects the antibacterial agent, making the bacteria impervious to the Triclosan. (graphic by Gervis Menzies)

Germ-conscious Americans have taken notice of the findings of a recent Food and Drug Administration panel. While the variety of antibacterial products that have emerged in the marketplace in recent years may lead you to believe differently, the panel revealed last month that antibacterial soaps are no more likely to control the growth and spread of bacteria than regular soap and water.

On top of no real benefit, these antibacterial products could also lead to super germs that are resistant to antibacterial soaps and antibiotics, said epidemiology Prof. Allison Aiello, who has studied the concerns of continued use of antibacterial soap and products.

The most common ingredient in most antibacterial soaps is triclosan, which the FDA approved as an effective agent for killing bacteria in the 1960s.

At the time, scientists believed that it killed germs indiscriminately, making it difficult for bacteria to develop ways to counteract the chemical compound. This set triclosan apart from antibiotics because antibiotics typically disrupt a specific protein necessary for a bacteria’s life cycle.

But more recent research has shown that triclosan acts like an antibiotic and does, in fact, eradicate bacteria by targeting specific mechanisms in bacteria cells.

The problem with this killing method is that bacteria can gradually adapt to it through mutations.

One mutation, which takes the form of efflux pumps, allows “bacteria to take in an antibiotic and then vomit it out,” Aiello said. With the pumps, bacteria can become impervious to triclosan and antibiotics because the efflux pumps can expel specific antibiotics that come in contact with the bacteria. To make matters worse, these pumps can then be transferred to other bacteria species.

Traditional soaps do not rely on killing bacteria to control their spreading. Instead, they remove bacteria by separating them from the skin. Soap molecules are able to bind to water and germs on the hands, allowing the bacteria to be rinsed down the drain or transferred onto a towel.

Another popular line of hygiene products are alcohol-based hand sanitizers. Aiello said that these sanitizers show no signs of leading to antibiotic resistance. Alcohol products such as these kill bacteria by drying them out. Plus they also benefit the skin by causing less water loss than traditional soap and water.

The Soap and Detergent Association, which represents the manufacturers of household cleaning products, stands by its antibacterial products, which have been approved by the FDA for more than 30 years.

In a statement released Oct. 20, the association said, “While laboratory studies have speculated about a link between antimicrobial products and bacterial resistance, there is simply no clinical, real-world evidence of increased resistance.”

Along with concluding that antibacterial soaps are not more effective than regular soap, the independent 12-person FDA advisory panel recommended that the agency look more closely into the risks and benefits of antibacterial products.

Another question that has not been addressed, Aiello said, is that her studies focused on people who are generally healthy. But she added that such antibacterial products might be helpful for people who have weaker immune systems.

One thing that the Soap and Detergent Association and Aiello agree on is the importance of hygiene.

“Hygiene is the very important in preventing infection in a community setting. The primary barrier against the spread of disease is soap and water,” Aiello stated.Ever wondered if there’s a difference between regular soap and the antibacterial kind? Maybe in smell, but not in how effectively they clean.

Germ-conscious Americans have taken notice of the findings of a recent Food and Drug Administration panel. While the variety of antibacterial products that have emerged in the marketplace in recent years may lead you to believe differently, the panel revealed last month that antibacterial soaps are no more likely to control the growth and spread of bacteria than regular soap and water.

On top of no real benefit, these antibacterial products could also lead to super germs that are resistant to antibacterial soaps and antibiotics, said epidemiology Prof. Allison Aiello, who has studied the concerns of continued use of antibacterial soap and products.

The most common ingredient in most antibacterial soaps is triclosan, which the FDA approved as an effective agent for killing bacteria in the 1960s.

At the time, scientists believed that it killed germs indiscriminately, making it difficult for bacteria to develop ways to counteract the chemical compound. This set triclosan apart from antibiotics because antibiotics typically disrupt a specific protein necessary for a bacteria’s life cycle.

But more recent research has shown that triclosan acts like an antibiotic and does, in fact, eradicate bacteria by targeting specific mechanisms in bacteria cells.

The problem with this killing method is that bacteria can gradually adapt to it through mutations.

One mutation, which takes the form of efflux pumps, allows “bacteria to take in an antibiotic and then vomit it out,” Aiello said. With the pumps, bacteria can become impervious to triclosan and antibiotics because the efflux pumps can expel specific antibiotics that come in contact with the bacteria. To make matters worse, these pumps can then be transferred to other bacteria species.

Traditional soaps do not rely on killing bacteria to control their spreading. Instead, they remove bacteria by separating them from the skin. Soap molecules are able to bind to water and germs on the hands, allowing the bacteria to be rinsed down the drain or transferred onto a towel.

Another popular line of hygiene products are alcohol-based hand sanitizers. Aiello said that these sanitizers show no signs of leading to antibiotic resistance. Alcohol products such as these kill bacteria by drying them out. Plus they also benefit the skin by causing less water loss than traditional soap and water.

The Soap and Detergent Association, which represents the manufacturers of household cleaning products, stands by its antibacterial products, which have been approved by the FDA for more than 30 years.

In a statement released Oct. 20, the association said, “While laboratory studies have speculated about a link between antimicrobial products and bacterial resistance, there is simply no clinical, real-world evidence of increased resistance.”

Along with concluding that antibacterial soaps are not more effective than regular soap, the independent 12-person FDA advisory panel recommended that the agency look more closely into the risks and benefits of antibacterial products.

Another question that has not been addressed, Aiello said, is that her studies focused on people who are generally healthy. But she added that such antibacterial products might be helpful for people who have weaker immune systems.

One thing that the Soap and Detergent Association and Aiello agree on is the importance of hygiene.

“Hygiene is the very important in preventing infection in a community setting. The primary barrier against the spread of disease is soap and water,” Aiello stated.

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