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By stopping the growth of bacteria rather than killing them, the standard antibacterial soap ingredient triclosan gives them opportunities to become antibiotic-resistant.

Fighting bacteria with soap and water is a good thing. You would think that fighting bacteria with antibacterial soap and water would be an even better thing, but researchers have confirmed that one of the main active ingredients in antibacterial soap and hand sanitizers, triclosan, actually helps antibiotic-resistant bacteria like MRSA survive.

Triclosan is not itself an antibiotic. It does not kill bacteria. It only stops them from growing. That turns out to be the problem.

What Is Antibiotic Resistance?

Before we go any further, it may help to make the definition of antibiotic resistance clear. Antibiotic resistance is not something that occurs when you are resistant to antibiotics, or when antibiotics don't work for you.

 

Antibiotic resistance is something that occurs when bacteria are resistant to antibiotics, when antibiotics no longer kill them.

 

For a time, in the 1940's, antibiotics were a wonder drug. Infections that previously had been deadly could be stopped with a shot of penicillin. As early as the 1960's, however, doctors all over the world started noticing that antibiotics did not work any more. What had happened took another decade or so to figure out. Because bacteria reproduce as often as two or three times an hour, mutations of their DNA are much more common than in, say, elephants or whales or people. Most of those mutations were, from the point of view of bacterial survival, bad. Once in a while, however, a mutation conferred an advantage to the newly created bacterium that protected it against an antibiotic.

That meant that while other bacteria around it were dying, the mutant bacterium could live normally. It had more nutrients than had the other bacteria not been treated. It could undergo fission and pass down the mutuation to future generations. And it could even engage in a kind of "bacterial sex" and transfer the mutant protective gene to other bacteria around it.

Purell Hand Sanitizer and Dial Antiseptic Soap And Countless Other Products Make the Problem of Antibiotic Resistance Worse

That's why "antibacterial" products like the countless brands of antibacterial body wash, antimicrobial soap, and antiseptic soap that contain triclosan are no longer a good thing. Soap and water do remove most of the bacteria on your skin, but triclosan only "stuns" the rest. Your skin will still host a few microbes in something approximating a state of suspended animation. Even in this state, however, the bacteria have a functional efflux pump system (it's not totally inaccurate to compare this to "pooping out" genes for antibiotic resistance) that shares their genes with the microbes around them. Bacteria that are stunned but not dead can donate and receive genes for antibiotic resistance so that any bacteria you don't manage to wash off can become deadly.

This means that if you just squirt a little hand sanitizer on your hands and rub your fingers together you are doing nothing to get rid of the bacteria on your skin, but you are holding them in stasis so more and more of them become antibiotic-resistance. Laboratory experiments confirm that  Staphyllococcus aureusPseudomonas aeruginosaEscherichia coliSalmonella enterica, and Rhodospirillum rubrum all become more resistant to antibiotics after exposure to hand cleaners.

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