Lather Not: Say Nope to Antibacterial Soap



Antibacterial soap is great for medical settings, but not so great for everyday use.


Walk into any bathroom in Lowenstein and you’ll find a soap dispenser that reads “Antibacterial Hand Soap.” According to the American Cleaning Institute, 50% of Americans wash their hands more than 10 times a day, but what if washing your hands with these soaps is doing more harm than help?

Researchers and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have raised concerns about antibacterial soaps. Researchers have cited its harmful effects on the environment, long-term human health and bacterial resistance as causes for concern with the overuse of medical-grade antibacterial soaps.

Found in Lowenstein bathrooms, brands like the EZ Hand Hygiene line of soaps by Kutol, a bulk hand soap company, contain the antibacterial agent benzalkonium chloride (BAC). This chemical became popular following the FDA’s crackdown on Triclosan, a potentially harmful antibacterial agent sold in consumer hand soaps.

Joan Roberts, Ph.D., warns against the rampant use of antibacterial soap. “Antibacterial soap is not only unnecessary,” said Roberts, “but adds to the worldwide danger of developing resistant bacteria.” Such resistance refers to the tendency of bacteria to evolve against the very agents used to kill them.

The effects of bacterial resistance are most common in the realm of antibiotics, which are the go-to treatment options for individuals infected with bacteria like E. coli or strep. For example, physicians regularly prescribed ciprofloxacin to patients with the sexually transmitted infection gonorrhea in the 1990s. By 2007, however, drug-resistant gonorrhea had so overwhelmed the number of gonorrhea cases that the Centers for Disease Control stopped recommending ciprofloxacin as a viable treatment option.

Antibiotic resistance came about from the overprescription of these antibiotics for low-risk or viral illnesses like the cold or flu. Some factors, however, can be traced back to the patient. Deciding to go off antibiotics before the endpoint your doctor has recommended or saving antibiotics for when you get sick again are both causes of antibiotic resistance.

Not all bacteria are genetically the same. It takes just one mutant bacterium to develop a whole strain of resistant bacteria. These bacteria have the ability to multiply even after coming into contact with antibacterial agents. Once these mutant bacteria become widespread enough, the agents used to kill them before will become ineffective. For this reason, it is important to be wary of the precautions we take like relying on antibacterial hand soaps. What we think might be helpful and necessary might actually be giving bacteria an opportunity to evolve.

After observing the rise of superbugs, the FDA decided to prevent companies from overselling consumer antibacterial soaps. Most of these products contained Triclosan as their active ingredient. Researchers noted that not only did Triclosan have possible harmful long term effects on the body, but it could also cause antibacterial resistance, which would render all of these cleaners obsolete. This effect could have especially dire consequences in the medical field, because healthcare providers depend on these hand soaps to protect themselves from infection.

The FDA cited evidence that Triclosan was not more effective than simply washing your hands with regular soap. Roberts also affirms these claims: “The most effective way to remove bacteria or other pathogens from your hands is to wash them with soap and warm water.” Medical-grade antibacterial soaps might literally be overkill when it comes to protecting yourself from getting sick.

When the FDA decided to ban Triclosan from consumer sale, they also mentioned BAC as a possible target of a future ban.

BAC is commonly used as a preservative in ear, eye and nasal drops or sprays in addition to hand sanitizers, wet wipes, shampoo, deodorants and cosmetics. BAC is very good at its job; a 1998 study in the AORN Journal of Perioperative Nursing found that BAC hand sanitizers were more effective than name-brand Purell against fighting bacteria. The FDA noted, however, that researchers have not sufficiently explored BAC’s long term effects, but existing research on BAC’s short-term effects on the human body is incriminating enough.

Although BAC is definitely medical-grade in its effectiveness against bacteria, it’s also potentially harmful, especially when used on a regular basis. BAC is toxic to humans in large concentrations, and though researchers haven’t found significant correlations with long-term use and adverse effects, some have advised against consumer use of BAC altogether.

Antibacterial agents cause more harm than good in a non-medical setting like our campus, so what can you do about it? It turns out that it’s not what you wash your hands with that protects you, but how you wash your hands. Vigorously scrubbing your hands for 20 seconds, making sure to clean every inch of your hands, is your best bet against disease. Above all else, make sure to use naturally derived soaps to wash your hands. Check the ingredients on the soap for BAC or research the active ingredients to confirm they are safe to use.

Considering these concerns, Fordham should explore safer alternatives for handwashing and infection control.