They’ve questioned whether all these newfangled antibacterial substances did better than straight soap and water for decades. The answer is that water alone does a pretty good job of getting rid of bacteria. Think tsunami on a microscopic level. Adding soap does a very good job, bringing down the numbers significantly. It matters a great deal how well you use the soap and water, as most of us simply dampen our fingertips and use the soap only on our palms (a handshake wraps around your hand).
So, what do the studies say about soap versus antibiotic soap? Well, they didn’t even start studying the difference until 2002, which is about thirty years after the products entered the marketplace. A review (here) of twenty-seven studies showed: “Soaps containing triclosan within the range of concentrations commonly used in the community setting (0.1%–0.45% wt/vol) were no more effective than plain soap at preventing infectious illness symptoms and reducing bacterial levels on the hands.”
Why the delay in studying which type of soap is more effective in a medical setting? My own suspicion is that we’ve been so busy trying to get medical personnel to put anything on their hands researchers didn’t care as much what it was.
How successful has getting medical staff to do hand washing between patients been? “Hand-hygiene compliance was 45% and did not vary over time.” And this was in a Canadian teaching hospital in the last two years. (study here). Lest anyone think that things are better across the southern border, here’s an analysis of a U.S. operating room:”Compliance significantly increased from 10% (465/4,636) to 30% (1,202/4,029) and finally to 55%” (study here).
So if your medical staff person puts anything on their hands, you’ve already beaten the odds. No, the antibiotic rubs aren’t more effective than soap and water, but it sure beats them eating lunch and then probing your eyeball with sandwich crumbs still clinging to their fingers.
- FDA: Anti-bacterial soaps may not curb bacteria (cnsnews.com)
- FDA Asks For Proof That Antibacterial Soaps Protect Health (npr.org)
- FDA revisiting safety of antibacterial soap products (bizjournals.com)
- FDA: Anti-bacterial soaps may not curb bacteria (sfexaminer.com)
- FDA: Anti-bacterial soaps may not curb bacteria (yakimaherald.com)
- Antibacterial ‘may be dangerous’ (theage.com.au)
- FDA proposes ban on antibacterial soaps (boston.com)
- FDA: Anti-bacterial soaps may not curb bacteria (pottsmerc.com)
- Forty years after it started investigating triclosan, an anti-bacterial ingridient in liquid soaps, (gawker.com)
- FDA wants more proof that anti-bacterial soaps actually work (washingtonpost.com)