Should antibacterial soap be outlawed?

Antibacterial Soap vs Regular Soap

Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap, an organic soap.
Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap, an organic soap.
Courtesy Dr. Bronner's

Sometimes plain old soap and other tried-and-true cleaning agents can work just as well as today's antibacterial products. Good, old-fashioned soap may not say "antibacterial" on its label, but it still kills germs. Sometimes it does a better job than antibacterial soap.

In addition, soap isn't the only thing that kills bacteria -- there are many naturally occurring antibacterial agents. Lemon juice, for example, changes the pH level in bacterial cells, creating an acidic environment in which microbes can't survive. Other naturally antibacterial substances dry cells out, killing the bacteria (bacteria most commonly thrive in moist environments). Still others, like bleach and certain alcohols completely obliterate the cells of the bacteria. Unlike the targeted attack of antimicrobial agents, bleach and certain alcohols simply cause the cells to lyse, or rupture.

Why haven't bacteria adapted to the agents found in bleach, alcohol and lemon juice? The reason why bacteria aren't resistant to these agents is because they do not leave a residue. There is no chance for surviving bacteria to adapt within the residual environment, so bacteria are just as susceptible to bleach and alcohol as they were 100 years ago. Skip the antimicrobial smart bomb and go for the big bleach blockbuster.

So what do we do to ward off superbacteria? Fortunately, the same rules to cleanliness still apply. The 2005 study showed that illness decreased among household members who washed their hands more, with or without antibacterial soap [source: Aiello]. Practicing good hygiene habits, like using alcohol-based hand sanitizer and staying away from people who have a cold, are still as valid as ever. And Stuart Levy assures us that if we take our antibiotics properly, the state of environmental flora will return to "what it was before the antibiotic/antibacterial onslaught" [source: Levy].

So stay well, stay warm and dry, and start rehearsing your ABCs while you wash your hands.

For more information on antibiotics and other related topics, visit the next page.

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  • Aiello, Allison E., et al. "Antibacterial Cleaning Products and Drug Resistance." Emerging Infectious Diseases. October 2005.
  • Andremont, A., et al. "Evaluating and Predicting the Ecologic Impact of Antibiotics." Clinical Microbiology and Infection. November, 2001. Full+Text+PDF+%2898+KB%29&doi=10.1046%2Fj.1469-0691.2001.00065.x &cookieSet=1
  • Groch, Judith. "Antibacterial Soap No Better and May Be Worse Than Plain Soap." CMP Medica. August 16, 2007. articleID=201800663&cid=BreakingNews
  • Levy, Stuart B. "Antibacterial Household Products: Cause for Concern." Emerging Infectious Diseases Conference. June 2001.
  • "MRSA Infection." Mayo Clinic. ­ ­