Wash with Soap and Water (Mom Was Right!)

Beware the overuse of antibacterial soaps (and antibiotics, too)

by Dorene Weinstein | 04 Apr 2016 at 5:22 AM

When it comes to getting clean, here’s the deal: Nothing beats plain soap and water.

Careful hand washing is one of the leading ways of protecting ourselves and others from disease, and studies have proven that plain soap and water is the best go-to product for cleaning up.

For the average consumer and “for the ordinary activities of daily life, soap and water is adequate. Antibacterial washes are unnecessary and are overkill,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a clinical assistant professor in the critical care and emergency medicine departments at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) and School of Medicine.

So why are so many people reaching for antibacterial soaps?

The active ingredient in antibacterial soaps and washes is triclosan, a chemical also found in pesticides. The FDA and the EPA are working together to ensure government-wide consistency on its use and measure the exposure and effects on human health.

The CDC reports there is no added health benefit for consumers (not including health care workers) to use soaps containing antibacterial ingredients, compared to using plain soap.

In addition, we may have already done more harm than good.

Extensive use of antibacterial products and the overuse of antibiotics have led to mutations among targeted organisms to the point they are now resistant to antibiotics. The World Health Organization calls antimicrobial resistance one of the biggest threats to global health today. Some data also suggests that long-term exposure to triclosan in liquid soaps and triclocarban in bar soaps not only increases bacterial resistance but also has hormonal effects.

There are changes ahead: Manufacturers are facing more regulations on antibacterial soaps and washes.

Makers of antibacterial washes were put on alert by the FDA in 2013 that they had to demonstrate their products are safe for long-term daily use and more effective than plain soap and water in preventing illness if they want to keep that claim on their labels.

If companies do not demonstrate such safety and effectiveness, these products would need to be reformulated or relabeled to remain on the market, said Andrea Fischer, an FDA spokesperson.

"The FDA is reviewing this information and intends to issue a final rule on consumer antiseptics washes by September 15, 2016," Fischer told LifeZette.

The new regulations may affect a lot of people, but they won’t bother Brooke Wiggs, who rarely uses antibacterial hand washes.

"I prefer soap and water. I’ve never been a hand sanitizer person. It’s easier to just wash your hands. When using sanitizer, it never feels clean," said Wiggs, a special education teacher in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Last spring Wiggs, 31, was a victim of a virulent disease contracted through contaminated food and poor hand washing techniques by restaurant workers.

She was perplexed when she developed a fever and painful diarrhea not long after eating out. "I couldn’t do basic tasks like take a shower, drive a car or brush my teeth. They seemed so arduous and difficult."

Wiggs knew she needed to see a doctor when she became too weak to stand.

Hospitalized for three days with Shigella, a bacterial infection that causes diarrhea and infects 500,000 people a year in the United States, she said her biggest fear was the possibility of a miscarriage. She was in her first trimester of her third pregnancy.

Shigella is spread through consuming tainted food, or by touching contaminated surfaces and then touching your mouth.

Ultimately, Wiggs delivered a healthy baby boy, but these days she’s hesitant to eat salads in restaurants and she washes her hands scrupulously.

Shigella is among a handful of illnesses that can be contained by thorough hand washing. Others include airborne diseases such as the common cold and influenza; chicken pox, meningitis and Group A and B streptococcal infections are also airborne illnesses, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. More diseases that can be stopped by good hand washing are noroviruses or GI diseases, hepatitis A, and infections acquired in the hospital, known as nosocomial infections.

While antibacterial washes may be on their way out, the public will hardly be unprotected. "If demand shrinks for antibacterial consumer products, companies will have to adjust to a new market environment," Dr. Adalja told LifeZette.

Furthermore, "regular hand hygiene with soap and water plus getting recommended vaccines is the best way to protect oneself from disease. Refraining from antibacterial products, when they are unnecessary, lessens the chance an individual will harbor resistant organisms."

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