The dirt on antibacterials

CHOICE goes beyond the health hype of cleaners and sanitisers.
Learn more

02.The soap story

antibacterials_NOV11_WEB6Another good reason to limit antibacterials to healthcare is that many of the products we find in the supermarket are no more effective than soap and water.

antibacterials_NOV11_WEB4Suds stack up

Regardless of whether antibacterial products contributing are to antibiotic resistance, there’s a strong case to be made that they’re targeting a need that’s already met.

Although soap doesn’t actually kill all bacteria, what it does do quite effectively is lift dirt off the skin and other surfaces, so dirt and bacteria can be easily rinsed away. Washing with soap and water will reduce the amount of bacteria to safe levels without the use of an antibacterial agent.

In fact, scientists have demonstrated that washing hands with plain old soap is just as effective at reducing bacterial load as washing with antibacterial soap. And, this time-honoured approach has the added bonus of not disturbing the balance of good and bad bacteria.

What’s more, many studies have shown that the use of antibacterials does not reduce infection rates in healthy households. One well established fact that product makers don’t mention in their marketing is that many of the common illnesses you need to worry about are caused by viruses, not bacteria.

Keeping these facts in mind, it’s fair to say that antibacterials do little beyond what soap and water can do.

The allergy link

Dirt may not be such a bad thing after all. Health scientists have suggested that our war on bacteria may be partially responsible for the increase in rhinitis and allergic asthma in children.

Based on studies showing a lower incidence of allergic disease in children who grow up in large families, attend childcare or have pets, the current consensus is that exposure to microbes as a child plays an important role in regulating the immune system. In other words it may reduce the body’s tendency to develop allergic reactions to common allergens.

The overuse of antibacterials in your home could mean that your child is more likely to develop allergies.

Triclosan – the household pesticide

One of the most common antibacterials to be added to household products is triclosan (or triclocarbon) . You may find it if you look at the ingredients list on your liquid or bar soaps or toothpaste.

Triclosan is a highly effective agent against harmful organisms, but there is concern that it could also pose a risk to our health and the environment.

  • Animal studies have indicated that it may be an endocrine disruptor as it interferes with both thyroid and sex hormones.
  • Since humans have similar hormone systems to other animals, these chemicals may also be affecting us in similar ways.
  • About three-quarters of Americans have triclosan in their urine.
  • It has also been detected in human blood and breast milk, and blood levels spike after using antibacterial soaps and toothpaste containing the chemical.
  • After you use soap and toothpaste, most of the product goes down the sink where it enters the environment and waterways.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed a rule that requires manufacturers of antibacterial soaps to prove their products are more effective than soap and water and safe for long-term use.  

According to the FDA, there’s currently no evidence that antibacterial soaps are more effective at preventing illness and may in fact be harmful. Research suggests that long-term exposure to active ingredients such as triclosan, found in liquid soaps, and triclocarban, found in bar soaps, is causing bacterial resistance. 

Under the new rule, manufacturers in the US would either have to provide evidence for the antibacterial claim or either remove the antibacterial ingredients from the product or the claim from the label. In Australia, such rules do not exist. but the  Therapeutic Goods Administration has said it is aware of the FDA’s review and will monitor developments.

In the meantime, if you’re concerned about triclosan, check the ingredients list of your soaps and toothpaste before buying.

Safe sanitising

  • Choose a sanitiser with 60%-80% alcohol. Use soap and water first if your hands are visibly soiled.
  • Apply the amount recommended by the manufacturer and rub hands together, coating all surfaces.
  • Continue rubbing until the hands are dry. If it takes less than 15 seconds to dry, then you haven’t applied enough.

CHOICE verdict

While antibacterial soaps and cleaners are needed in a healthcare setting, they provide little benefit in our homes. Next time you’re in the cleaning products aisle and looking for a germ eradicator, take a moment to consider the ingredients of what you buy.

Antibacterials have their place in certain circumstances, but as they’re no better than soap and water, why take the chance that using them might be contributing to antibiotic resistance or reducing their effectiveness in hospitals? Not buying them can save you a few dollars too.


Sign up to our free

Receive FREE email updates of our latest tests, consumer news and CHOICE marketing promotions.

Your say - Choice voice

Make a Comment

Members – Sign in on the top right to contribute to comments