Can Antibacterial Soaps Make You Sick?

Antibacterial Soaps
The chemical triclosan, found in some antibacterial soaps and other household products, may compromise the immune system and cause disease. Image Credit: Bill Branson / National Cancer Institute

Can Antibacterial Soaps Make You Sick?

Do antibacterial soaps make people more prone to develop illnesses? Can antibacterial soaps actually make you sick? Research studies indicate that there is a link between overexposure to a chemical in some antibacterial soaps and the development of certain diseases. Antibacterial soaps containing the chemical triclosan may cause greater incidences of allergies in children.
Triclosan is an anitmicrobial agent found in antibacterial soaps and other household products such as toothpaste, deodorants, detergents, and cosmetics. Triclosan chemicals function similarly to hormones and can cause endocrine system disruptions. Long term use of products containing triclosan can result in the accumulation of the chemical in the body over time. Triclosan has been detected in human blood, urine, and breast milk. Studies indicate that people of age 18 and under with higher levels of triclosan in the body are more likely to be diagnosed with allergies or hay fever. In addition, constant exposure to antibacterial agents and ultra-clean environments during childhood can stunt immune system development leading to an increased risk for the development of disease in adulthood. Diseases that could potentially develop include heart disease and cancer.

Exposure to Germs Helps Build Immune System

It is common knowledge that keeping a clean environment is the best way to prevent the spread of germs.
Ultra-clean environments however, may not be best for children. This type of environment prevents children from being exposed to common germs. Exposure to germs is needed to ensure the development of an effective immune system later in life. By constantly using antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizers, parents may be inadvertently inhibiting immune network development in their children.
Inflammatory systems in the body require greater exposure to bacteria and other microbes for proper development. When bacteria infect the body, the immune system initiates an inflammatory response to destroy the germs. Blood vessels dilate around the infected area to increase blood flow and to allow more white blood cells to reach the area. The tissue around the infected area may become red, swollen, and may even be painful. When the inflammatory response ends, the germs are destroyed and the infection no longer persists. A lack of exposure to microbes early in life may result in greater levels of inflammation in adulthood and a higher risk for disease.

Antibacterial Soap Alternatives

Washing your hands properly with plain soap and water is reported to be as effective at preventing infectious illness as using consumer antibacterial soaps. Unlike the antibacterial soaps used in hospitals or other clinical settings, consumer antibacterial soaps contain lower concentrations of triclosan. This makes them less effective at killing germs. In addition, consumer formulated antibacterial soaps are thought to lead to antibiotic resistance in some bacteria. Other bacteria, such as Escherichia coli (E.coli), have shown resistance to triclosan.
Triclosan kills bacteria by targeting a specific biochemical pathway. The cell walls of the bacteria however, are not disrupted or destroyed. If these bacteria undergo certain gene mutations, they can develop resistance to triclosan.

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers have been found to be more effective at killing bacteria than antibacterial soaps. The alcohol targets bacterial proteins, destroying the germs. When using these sanitizers, be sure they contain at least 60 percent alcohol. Although plain soap and water don't actually kill bacteria, washing and drying your hands properly with soap and water is still considered the best way to prevent the spread of bacteria and infectious disease. Soap and water physically remove the germs from your hands. Washing your hands properly with soap and water for at least 30 seconds can remove 99 percent of germs. Because alcohol-based hand sanitizers don't work as well when your hands are covered with dirt or food, using soap and water is the best option when available.