BHealthy Blog

The FDA, Soap, and Superbugs

By Sarah-Catherine Formiller, Pharmacy Resident, Baptist Health Medical Center-North Little Rock

Bacteria were first linked with disease in the 1870s. Soon after, hand washing was considered necessary as a means to stay healthy. In the 1950s and 1960s, triclosan was first introduced in hospitals. Triclosan is the ingredient that kills bacteria in most antimicrobial soaps we as consumers use on a daily basis.

In 1984, two men named David Poshi and Peter Divone filed for a patent for “antimicrobial soap.” They created the first modern day antimicrobial soap by adding the same ingredient that was introduced in the 1950s, triclosan. Today, antimicrobial soaps can be found in every household in America. There are currently many more different chemicals used in the US that give soaps antibacterial properties.

Hand washing is extremely important to kill bacteria that can make us sick. Regular soap that does not contain antibacterial agents may work just as well as antimicrobial soap in killing these harmful bacteria. Also, antibacterial soap is likely only effective in removing harmful bacteria if it is left on the skin for two minutes. Most people do not wash their hands for two minutes every time, and therefore do not receive the benefits of antibacterial soap.

However, antibacterial soap can also kill good bacteria that live on our skin that we need to survive. Scientists are currently researching whether repeated use of antibacterial soap may cause bacteria to develop resistance to it and other antibiotics.

These resistant bacteria are often referred to as “superbugs.” Superbugs can develop properties that allow them to be invincible against most antibiotics we have to treat infections. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) claims antibacterial soap is not necessary, but rather washing hands well with plain soap and water is sufficient.

Additionally, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also states that there isn’t enough evidence to show that over-the-counter antibacterial soaps are better at preventing illness than washing with plain soap and water. The benefits of using antibacterial hand soap haven’t been proven. The wide use of these products over a long time has raised the question of potential negative effects on your health such as the development of superbugs.

In September, the FDA issued a final rule saying that over-the-counter consumer antiseptic soap products containing certain active ingredients can no longer be marketed to the general public. This rule under which consumer antiseptic soap products (including liquid, foam, gel hand soaps, bar soaps, and body washes) containing the majority of the antibacterial active ingredients — including triclosan and triclocarban — will no longer be able to be marketed. The final rule covers only consumer antibacterial soaps and body washes that are used with water. It does not apply to hand sanitizers or hand wipes. It also does not apply to antibacterial soaps that are used in health-care settings such as hospitals and nursing homes.

So what should consumers do? Wash your hands with plain soap and water. That’s still one of the most important steps you can take to avoid getting sick and to prevent spreading germs.

According to the CDC, the proper way to wash your hands is as follows:

  • Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
  • Lather your hands by rubbing them together with soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  • Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds.
  • Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
  • Dry your hands using a clean towel or air-dry them.

It is important that we wash our hands properly to stay healthy in our normal daily life. It is even more important that we use this hand-washing technique while we are inside the hospital to ensure the safest environment for our patients and their families.