Will antibacterial soap doom us all?
Some scientists seem to just yearn for a good doomsday scenario that will catapult them into the public gaze. Climatologists once toiled in an obscure field where things literally moved at glacial speeds. Now potentates the world over call on them for advice; some are bound to feel guilty pleasure at all the attention. It’s exciting to issue dire prognostications about the climate, asteroids, the flu, or — in the case of antibacterial soap — antibiotic resistance. There is a risk, though, that you’ll be wrong.
Our skin and surroundings are swarming with billions upon billions of invisible bacteria with long and threatening-sounding Latin names. There are plenty of companies happy to placate our squeamishness with products to clean those germs right off.
But a lot of medical and biochemical types have decried this as madness, and the substances triclosan and triclocarban used in most antibacterial soaps have been picked out for special mention.
This is more than vague uneasiness that antibacterial soap is the start of a slippery slope which ends with us wearing tissue boxes on our feet and storing our own urine. Triclosan inhibits the growth of bacteria in a way that seems closely tied to the way an antibiotic called isoniazid works. The concern is that bacteria may develop resistance to triclosan and that this may also render them resistant to isoniazid.
Pretty scary, and when I tell you that this concern has been expressed not only by experts in the field but also by prime-time television dramas, you will understand the true scale of the problem.
But like most things on TV it isn’t true. Not because the fears about triclosan are unfounded, but because it turns out that antibacterial soap kills no more bacteria than regular soap. It seems to contain too little triclosan to do the job properly and too little to trigger any antibiotic resistance.
So that’s pulled the soap box out from underneath the doom-sayers. They can talk up the threat as much as they like, but all it takes is a good experiment to wash away their fears.