The Truth About Antibacterial Soaps

"For me, this was among all the marvels that I discovered in nature, the most marvelous of all, and I must say that, for my part, no more pleasant sight has met my eye than this of so many thousand living creatures in one small drop of water."

Germs. Bacteria. Microbes. Microorganisms. Tomato, to-mah-to. Those are what the famous inventor of the microscope, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, was talking about in this quote. Just hearing the word "bacteria" already makes you want to run to your kitchen sink and wash your hands free of these invisible stains. (Aha! Guilty, aren’t you?)

A large percentage of hygiene products nowadays are labeled as germicidals or antibacterials. The companies who made these products promote the idea that being hygienic means being "squeaky clean". And the idea of getting bacteria anywhere has scared consumers into thinking that antibacterial soaps or hand sanitizers are must-haves. Some have been "brainwashed" into thinking they have to wash their hands or douse their hands with pocket sanitizers every 15 minutes. Or everytime they shake a stranger's hand. This propaganda have already made us fear each other as much as we fear these invisible invaders. And for what reason? Sales. Scaring the consumer market into buying your products does sound like an effective market plan, if you ask me. After all, it did work.

A little paranoia never hurt anyone..

That's what I used to say. Until I read about how scientists have studied the effects of using antibacterial products more often than necessary. A U.S. Food and Drug Administration committee documented that it "often is not clear what contribution consumer antiseptics make relative to washing with plain soap and water". Furthermore, in 2005, they found no medical studies that suggest there was any link between a specific antibacterial product and a decline in rates of infection.

The Emergence of Superbugs

One of the reasons why antibacterial products should be regulated is the possibility of the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria or superbugs. Try recalling your high school lessons about natural selection or, more appropriately, "survival of the fittest". By using antibacterial soaps, what you end up doing is getting rid of the bacteria that are too weak to withstand its antiseptic effects (see Figure below). But not all bacteria are destroyed in the process - those that survived are the ones who resisted your antiseptic soap. What happens next? These remaining bacteria will reproduce. You will then end up with bacteria that are mostly antibiotic-resistant. Repeat the process over and over again and you will someday end up with bacteria that will resist ANY antibiotic known to man - these are the so-called superbugs. Here’s a fancy little picture that I made showing how natural selection basically works:

Antibacterial Resistance

Antibacterials vs. Vaccines

I know what you’re thinking. If bacteria can develop resistance against antibacterial products, can viruses also develop resistance against vaccines? Here’s how we should look at it. Antibacterial soaps and products work by killing off germs – which means that though you managed to clean your hands, it will still be exposed to bacteria. Vaccines work by strengthening your immune system and reducing the chances of viruses wreaking havoc in your body. Antibacterial products work separately from your body’s natural defense system. Nevertheless, there’s still the possibility of the development of new strains that break through the immunity that these vaccines provide us.

Some antibacterial soaps, however, succeed in getting rid of viruses that you come in contact with. But only externally. Logically, you’ll have less chances getting sick from these babies if you stay healthy, than if you stay obsessively clean.

A Call for Rationality

So how do we prevent the emergence of these so-called superbugs? There are a lot of ways we can prevent this. After all, despite all the medical challenges we’ve had in the past centuries, we’re still not extinct aren’t we? Here are some of the steps we can take:

Live healthy. Most people fail to realize that the best way to battle these invaders is to strengthen our immune system. Living healthy does not necessarily mean you have to live in an airtight bubble. Eat healthy food, get your daily dose of vitamins and minerals, and exercise regularly. If you divert your effort to strengthening your own bodily fortresses, you need not bother buying the "most effective" antibacterial soaps out there.

Studies have shown that washing your hands with plain soap is just as good as using an antibacterial soap. You only need to scrub properly. Also, some of the chemicals used in antibacterial products are more harmful than they are beneficial. One good example would be triclosan. Triclosan not only does harm to the environment, but also to your body. It is considered to be an endocrine disruptor that affects your thyroid gland and acts on sex hormones (estrogen and androgen).

Go natural. If you really need to keep antibacterial agents within reach, there are some essential oils with bacteriocidal properties, like Australian tea tree oil, pine oil and grapefruit seed extracts. Select products that use those as ingredients instead of those hard-to-read chemicals you commonly find in antibacterial soaps. If you can’t find any soap in the market that use those ingredients, do as I do. Make your own soap! Not only will it be cheaper, you’ll also have complete control over what chemicals are in your soap. You can find a natural “antibacterial” soap recipe in our Super Soap Recipes page.

Last but not the least, be rational. Look at bacteria the same way our friend Antoni did when he first beheld the millions of organisms living inside a drop of water. Respect them but do not fear them.