Anti bacterial soaps – a good thing or not?

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Dr Ignaz Semmelweis

Could anti-bacterial soaps possibly not be a good thing? Surely killing the nasty bacteria lurking on our hands can only lead to better health and less skin disease.  One of the good things to come out of the Bird Flu scares was the appearance in most public toilets of soap to wash our hands with, and, despite the usual short memory when a scare has died down, it remains unusual to not have soap available in the UK.  Hand washing found favour due to the work of Dr Ignaz Semmelweis: from the 1600’s through the 1800’s, many women died of puerperal fever after childbirth, with the doctors attending them being proud of their unwashed hands and amount of blood spattered on their clothing.  Dr Semmelweis worked out what was causing so many maternal deaths- filthy doctors hands – and he tried to get them to wash their hands.  But the medical profession was deeply opposed to this, and poured such scorn on Semmelweis’ ideas, that Semmelweis ended up being committed to a mental asylum where he ended his days. Funny how some can be so resistant to change.

Without a shadow of a doubt, we should wash our hands after using the smallest room, before and during food preparation and so on.  But what soap should we wash our hands with? Quoting from a piece by Elizabeth A Grice, printed in the May, 2009 edition of Science

The skin is a critical interface between the human body and its external environment, preventing loss of moisture and barring entry of pathogenic organisms.  The skin is also an ecosystem, harbouring microbial communities that live in a range of physiologically and topographically distinct niches.  For example, hairy moist underarms lie a short distance from smooth dry forearms, but these two niches are likely as ecologically dissimilar as rainforests are to deserts.1

So all over our skin, in different places, live a huge variety, an ecosystem, of bacteria.  According to Wiki there are an estimated 500-1,000 different species in the human gut and roughly as many on the human skin.  Are all these bacteria out to cause us harm?  Absolutely not. Just as in our gut, bacteria in different places on our skin live with each other, some good guys, some not so good, but usually each helping the other to survive.  The problem with any anti-biotic, be it one we take to clear up an infection, one we find in our toothpaste or one added to soap is that the anti-biotic does just what it says it will; kill bacteria and the good ones get massacred too. And now the good soldiers are out of it, the bad boys can really party.

Certain dermatological disorders manifest at stereotypical skin sites [e.g. psoriasis on the outer elbow and atopic dermatitis (eczema) on the inner bend of the elbow]. Moreover, antibiotic exposure, modified hygienic practices, and lifestyle changes have the potential to alter skin microbiome and may underlie the increased incidence of human disorders such as atopic dermatitis.

The point of this study and others like it is that scientists are trying to find creams to help eczema and so on, and these creams will kill the problem bacteria and ideally promote good bacteria.  There is money to made here! In the mean-whilst, the unthinking public lathers up with safe sounding anti-bac soaps, compounding skin problems by causing major imbalances in the flora of their skin.  So the race is on with big pharma for the longer this carries on, the more of us develop problems and as a result, more profits will be made. Hurrah.

In conclusion, yes, hand washing is excellent practice – but with normal soap.  As a brief summary, skin does well with a good balance of Omega 3 oils – fish oils – GLA and real vitamin E (not synthetic).  How much fun will it be if some of us wake up and stop playing the game.

 

  1. Grice E A, Kong HH et al.  Topographical and temporal diversity of the human skin microbiome.  Science 2009 May 29; 324 (5931_: 1190-1192. []

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