Do Antibacterial Soaps Kill Germs and Prevent Illness?

Cynthia Bailey, MD|December 18, 2013

healthy hand skin You’ve seen the claims on the over 2000 hand soaps and body washes.  These products tout themselves as “anti-bacterial”, but do they really work? We’re about to find out because as of this week the FDA is going to make antibacterial soap manufactures prove it!  It means that companies making these products will be required to produce a full-on clinical study to prove that their product really does work better than regular soap at killing germs and preventing the spread of infections. What happens if there is no proof that an anti-bacterial soap kills germs? Then the product can not make the claim AND the antiseptic ingredients will have to be removed from the product.  I think this is good news. The FDA is now also requiring manufactures to prove that their antiseptic ingredients are safe.  Again, this is huge for two reasons. First, the antiseptic ingredients triclosan (in liquid soaps) and triclocarban (in bar soap products) are building up in the environment, where they are long lasting. Humans and animals end up with these ingredients in their food and water. Secondly, these ingredients may not be entirely safe.  They are thought by some to be hormone disruptors and animal studies suggest that daily exposure can effect testosterone, estrogen and thyroid hormones. The safety of human exposure has not been established and the FDA wants to see manufactures prove it.  Of concern is that these ingredients have been found excreted in the urine of humans so we know that they are absorbed. The presence of these antimicrobial ingredients in human urine has also been correlated with increased body mass index as well as environmental and food allergies. (I wonder if this is related to an impact of the ingredients on the gut microbiom because these 3 phenomenon have also been correlated with alterations in the gut microbial balance??  I can't wait for this second level of research!  Click here to read more about the importance of your bodies good germs to your health.) When will you see the changes in anti-bacterial soaps and cleansers on your store shelves? The process will take a year. The FDA is allowing public comment until June and the manufactures have until December of 2014 to present data. We don’t know how many companies have done studies that they never presented to the FDA so we’ll just have to see how this unfolds. Does this apply to hand sanitizers and wipes? No. Hand sanitizers and wipes with a minimum of 60% alcohol are known to be effective against the spread of germs. They are what consumers should use to disinfect their hands when they cannot wash their hands with plain soap and running water. Washing with plain soap and running water is an “important step to avoid getting sick and to prevent spreading germs to others” according to the FDA. I agree. What hand care do I recommend to my patients and what do I personally do to help prevent the spread of germs? I recommend a good hand washing with plain soap and running water as the main method of preventing the spread of germs. When that is not possible, then I recommend the use of hand sanitizer products with 60% or more alcohol. The catch is that cold and flu season corresponds with winter, creating the perfect storm for chapped, itchy and painful hands. As a dermatologist I want to elevate the hand washing practice to one of healing and hydrating skin care so that your hand skin stays healthy and comfortable as you wash away germs. This is the only way to make it through the winter with healthy hand skin. An “elevated” hand care routine involves:

  1. Using a hypoallergenic soap that rinses off entirely under that running water
  2. Plus the application of an easy to use hand cream that does not make a greasy mess on everything you touch.

best dry hand skin care products to heal chapped skinThese are the key elements of my Dry Skin Hand Kit which also includes an emergency hydrating hand treatment to quickly “right” your hands when they tip into early dryness - the inevitable consequence from all the careful hand washing and hand sanitizing you are doing to keep you and your family safe. References: FDA Wants Proof of Anti-Bacterial Soap Claims  Click here for the FDA press announcement Photo attribution: thanks and gratitude to Nina Matthews

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