Beyond the Products

Antimicrobial soaps: Benefits versus risks

In 1964, a Swiss company created and patented an antimicrobial agent known as triclosan. Initially, medical personnel were the only ones using triclosan, specifically to scrub up before surgeries. But triclosan now appears in everything from antimicrobial soap to cutting boards and toothpaste.

When it comes to hand soap, the jury is still out on whether antimicrobial agents, including triclosan, are beneficial. This article provides an overview of antimicrobial soaps by defining the term “antimicrobial,” explaining how antimicrobial soap works, and reviewing the pros and cons.

Whether you are a custodian for a school or a facility manager for an industrial complex, this article will inform and equip you with the knowledge to choose the best soap for your institution.

The difference between antimicrobial and antibacterial

Before delving into the benefits and risks of antimicrobial cleaning products, we first need to provide a brief overview on the difference between “antimicrobial” and “antibacterial.” While similar, these two terms have nuanced definitions.

What distinguishes antimicrobial products from antibacterial products?

Although people tend to use these terms interchangeably, there is a distinct difference between “antimicrobial” and “antibacterial.” “Antimicrobial” is the broader term, while “antibacterial” describes a specific type of antimicrobial. It is the same distinction between owning a dog and owning a poodle. One term represents the category, while the other describes a specific type within that category.

Because “antimicrobial” is a broad category, there are several types of antimicrobial products. These products include the aforementioned antibacterials as well as antivirals, antifungals, and antiparasitics. Each antimicrobial product fights against a different type of microorganism. While some fight against fungi, others fight against germs and bacteria.

Why is it important to know the difference between the terms “antimicrobial” and “antibacterial”?

While you may not need to regularly distinguish antimicrobial from antibacterial products, there may be times when you could benefit from understanding the difference.

For example, antimicrobial products can sometimes prevent the growth of mildew and mold, while antibacterial products cannot. Antibacterial cleaning products only can kill bacteria and have no effect on viruses or fungi. By understanding these two terms, you can recognize what effect to expect from a particular cleaning solution.

How are antibacterial and antimicrobial products similar?

Many use the terms “antimicrobial” and “antibacterial” interchangeably when referring to products such as antibacterial soap, hand sanitizer, and other products containing antibacterial agents. In fact, manufacturers label the majority of antimicrobial soaps as antibacterial.

When in doubt, read the description on the label to clarify what to expect from a specific soap or cleanser.

How antimicrobial soap works

In general, antimicrobial soap works very similarly to regular soap. However, there are a few key aspects that distinguish antimicrobial soaps from other varieties.

How is antimicrobial soap different from regular soap?

Regular soap is amphipathic. This means it has both polar and nonpolar properties. During handwashing, the nonpolar properties cling to the dirt that contains bacteria. At the same time, the polar, water-soluble properties help wash away the dirt. By using soap, you literally wash germs down the drain instead of killing them.

Antimicrobial soaps are essentially the same as regular soaps except for the fact they contain an additive to prevent bacteria on the skin from reproducing. While similar additives have been around since the 1970s, adding antibacterial agents to hand soap only became prevalent more recently.

How do antimicrobial agents work in soap?

Antimicrobial agents fit into two groups based on how they work. To determine each antimicrobial agent’s category, one must evaluate both the agent’s speed of action and whether it leaves behind residue.

The first category contains chlorines, alcohols, and peroxides. These antimicrobial agents act quickly and evaporate—leaving no residue behind. This means they do not maintain prolonged contact with the skin after killing bacteria. Products such as alcohol-based hand sanitizers use these ingredients as their antibacterial agents.

The second category contains antimicrobial agents such as triclosan, triclocarban, and benzethonium chloride. These substances leave residue to prolong the antibiotic effect. In high concentrations, triclosan can permeate the wall of bacteria to kill it. In lower doses, such as in liquid soaps, triclosan instead breaks down an enzyme in the bacteria to prevent reproduction.

In what situations do you need to use antimicrobial hand soap?

In 2013, the FDA banned nineteen antibacterial ingredients from hand soap. However, the ban did “not apply to antibacterial soaps that are used in health care settings, such as hospitals and nursing homes.”

In short, you should reserve antimicrobial soap for use in settings in which the population is immunocompromised. In these settings, it is vital to ensure the elimination of bad bacteria. However, you should use these antimicrobial products within strict application guidelines and note that they are not a substitute for proper handwashing.

Pros of antimicrobial soap

While the FDA has banned several antimicrobial agents in commercial hand soap, there are a few benefits to using antimicrobial soap in health care institutions. The sections below explore the benefits of antimicrobial soap and when using it is most effective.

What are the biggest benefits of using antimicrobial soap?

The biggest benefit of using antimicrobial soap is its ability to disinfect. While regular soap washes the debris off of your skin, antimicrobial agents help prevent the spread of germs by actively killing bacteria. As previously mentioned, certain antimicrobial agents leave residue on the skin for the purpose of killing any remaining bacteria.

Additionally, there is a debate about using hand sanitizers vs. washing your hands. However, this is not an either-or situation, Hand sanitizers can work in a pinch when soap and water are not readily available. One must remember hand sanitizer does not substitute for washing your hands. This is because hand sanitizers will not remove the dirt and grease that hold bacteria.

According to the CDC, you should make sure to use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol content. Any lower alcohol concentration may not work effectively. It may only reduce the growth of germs instead of destroying them.

Hand sanitizer both kills bacteria and provides a high level of convenience. After all, you can carry around a small bottle of it in your purse or pocket. However, it does not wash off any lingering microorganisms after use. For this reason, it is still absolutely imperative that you consistently wash your hands with soap.

How does antimicrobial soap help prevent the spread of viruses?

On the molecular level, hand soap destroys viruses by interfering with their fatty layer, the weakest link of the virus. This essentially breaks apart the virus and prevents the spread of diseases. Additionally, due to its amphipathic nature, soap removes dirt and grime. In doing so, it washes viruses off your hands and down the drain.

However, this is not a feature of the antibacterial agents in the soap. Instead, it is merely a feature of handwashing. By definition, antibacterial agents are built to fight bacteria and not viruses. Only if the antimicrobial soap has additional antiviral properties will the soap mitigate the spread of viruses beyond good handwashing.

When should your organization consider using antimicrobial soap?

The primary organizations that should consider using antimicrobial soap are medical facilities such as hospitals, nursing homes, and veterinary clinics. Since diseases and bacteria are naturally more present in these settings, it is prudent to provide an extra layer of protection when disinfecting.

As already mentioned, however, everyone should apply antimicrobial products with care and not use them as a substitute for proper handwashing.

Individuals in other settings, such as educational and industrial facilities, should feel comfortable using standard hand soap as it is effective and poses no risks.

Cons of antimicrobial soap

Using antimicrobial soap in our day-to-day lives seems like a no-brainer. After all, who doesn’t want to kill germs and have a cleaner, healthier life?

Unfortunately, there is little evidence that antibacterial hand soap is the solution to avoid illness. The world once welcomed antibacterial agents, such as triclosan and triclocarban, as miracle products. However, studies have shown that antimicrobial soap is no more effective than regular soap and water.

One study in particular looked at the effect of regular soap versus antimicrobial soap on twenty strains of bacteria. The result? There was no significant difference between the two.

How likely is it that using antimicrobial soap can lead to antibiotic-resistant microbes?

Concerns have risen that antimicrobial agents can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. There is evidence showing antimicrobial cleaning as a source of “superbugs.” Some studies have shown that bacteria exposed to triclosan can mutate to survive. This renders the antimicrobial agent ineffective.

Why is this a concern? Because of the low concentration levels of triclosan in hand soap, bacteria can evolve to become antibiotic resistant. This occurs when the bacteria develop mutations in their proteins to combat the antibacterial agent. In some cases, this can impact the effectiveness of medical treatments and regular antibiotics.

For example, Staphylococcus aureus is usually a harmless bacterium commonly found on human skin and in the upper respiratory tract. However, it can cause staph infections, and it is notorious for its ability to develop antibiotic resistance when exposed to antibiotics.

What are the main reasons to avoid antimicrobial soap?

On top of antibiotic resistance concerns, there are additional reasons to avoid antimicrobial soap. Studies have shown a direct negative impact from triclosan in animals, for example. They have revealed that triclosan alters hormonal regulation in animals, including the development of liver tumors in mice.

Because triclosan is so prevalent, a 2008 study of adults and children in the United States found triclosan in the urine of 75 percent of those tested. No studies have directly linked triclosan to negative effects in humans. However, there is enough concern to warrant erring on the side of caution. Since there is no concrete evidence to prove that antimicrobial soaps provide any extra layer of safety in most settings, you can feel just as safe using regular soap.

There are also environmental concerns for the use of antimicrobial agents. Triclosan, in particular, does not end its journey after use. Evidence shows that triclosan lives on in the aquatic ecosystem and affects algae and hormone development in fish.

Lastly, antimicrobial soap can kill both “bad” and “good” bacteria. The majority of bacteria are neutral or beneficial. In fact, evidence suggests that certain bacteria help build the immune system and play an important role in childhood development. Even as adults, we need this “good” bacteria to compete and act as barriers against “bad” bacteria to keep us healthy.

Who should not use antimicrobial soap?

Facility managers should thoughtfully select hand soap for their organization. Because the evidence in favor of antimicrobial hand soap is inconclusive, most institutions should opt for a regular hand soap. In particular, educational facilities should avoid antimicrobial soap due to the health concerns surrounding hormone development.

As already mentioned, regular hand soap is extremely effective at removing dirt, and thus bacteria, from the skin. You can feel safe knowing regular hand soap is fully equipped to fight the spread of disease in your institution.

Always remember to wash your hands

Whether you decide to use an antimicrobial hand soap or regular hand soap in your organization, what matters most is that you consistently and thoroughly wash your hands.

Use liquid hand soap if you can. (Bar soap can harbor more bacteria.) Then lather both sides of your hands and scrub for at least twenty seconds. After thoroughly scrubbing, rinse off the soap with water and dry your hands on a clean towel.

This simple act is all you truly need to prevent the spread of bacteria and viruses. Washing your hands can cut the risk of contracting a respiratory illness in half. So do not neglect this important ritual!

When it comes to purchasing both regular and antimicrobial hand soaps for your institution, Spruce Industries proudly provides the highest-quality cleaning supplies. Learn more about Spruce Industries and how we can support your organization.

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