It’s 5.30pm. You’re on the tube, and it’s saturated with that damp warm air that marks the transition from spring to summer. Everyone is tired, grubby from traffic fumes and just a little bit sweaty. You go to grab a pole because as usual there are no empty seats when UGH! Unholy horror! The pole comes pre-moistened with the sticky fingerprints and mysterious bodily fluids of your fellow humans. Shuddering, you open the zippy pocket on your bag and take out the emergency bottle of antibacterial hand sanitiser you keep for emergencies such as this…
STOP RIGHT THERE. BACK UP A SPACE (DO NOT PASS GO, DO NOT COLLECT $200).
BBC London released a video on social media a few days ago which reported that microbiologists from London Metropolitan University have discovered 95 different microbes on the London tube system, 9 of which were superbugs – microbes resistant to most conventional antibiotics. Cue frantic commenters crying “gross!”, and advising their friends to be clean freaks and carry hand gel.
HOWEVER, in terms of our health as a population, this is the last thing we should be doing. For you, it’s as simple as applying that chilly green goo, waiting for it to sanitise your skin and then waiting for it to evaporate, along with all your dirty problems. But for the bacteria on your hands, they have just been just targeted by an antibacterial agent, most commonly triclosan – an antibiotic which works by attacking the cell membranes. Unfortunately, this means there is a very strong selection pressure for the toughest of these bacteria to survive. These little triclosan-impervious bastards will multiply (survival of the fittest) and form a superbug on your hands, and no amount of green goo is going to get rid of it.
Eventually, scientists are going to run out of antibiotics that actually work, because people have bathed in antibacterial hand gel 24/7 and inadvertently made the sequel to Nasty Bacteria – Super Duper Nasty 2: The Revenge. And then we are seriously screwed. Antibiotic resistance is without exaggeration one of the most serious threats facing humanity right now. Think the Dark Ages, but with more Snapchat coverage.
But hang on – aren’t we going to get sick anyway without the green goo to protect us from all those ghastly bacteria? The answer is for the most part, no. Unless you are elderly, have a severely weakened immune system, or are a new born baby, your immune system will take care of it – that’s what it’s there for. For most of history, our ancestors survived without hand sanitiser. Those that didn’t probably wouldn’t have benefited either, as clean hands wouldn’t have prevented the bubonic plague.
In fact, by using triclosan-containing products, you’re only making things worse for yourself. By attempting to shield yourself from the microscopic horrors of the urban world, you’re leaving your immune system as strong as a piece of cooked spaghetti. With hand gels doing all the bacteria-killing, the immune system doesn’t get a chance to fight anything itself. Therefore, when it is inevitably exposed to bacteria (which it will be if you ever want to go outside), it won’t have been primed by previous exposures. This means you could end up getting much sicker than you would have done without its use.
Way back in 2007, researchers from the University of Michigan School of Public Health found a strong link between the overuse of antibacterial soap in children and the risk of developing allergies. They hypothesised that when our immune systems are raised in more sterile environments, they become hypersensitive to allergens that they haven’t encountered before.
So what should you do? Should you roll in dirt and run free through the countryside? Start eating garbage? Not quite. But you can’t go wrong with some good old fashioned soap and water, a method wholeheartedly endorsed by the Centres for Disease and Prevention in America, and the NHS. Not only does the scrubbing action required for soap and water do a better job than the more superficial hand gels at removing bacteria, but unlike soap and water, sanitisers are known to be very drying on skin, leading to cracks and breaks that provide the ideal conditions that all sorts of germs would love to live in.
Most importantly, soap does not contribute to antibiotic resistance, because it contains no antibiotics. Alcohol hand-rubs as used in the NHS are also an option, as the alcohol sanitises in a different way to Triclosan by dissolving the whole organism rather than targeting part of it. This means it shouldn’t lead to bacterial resistance. However, most people like to buy the alcohol-free Triclosan gels as ironically, they believe alcohol can be drying.
The USA Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has very recently decided to ban the sale of handwashing products containing antibiotics, specifically Triclosan and Triclocarban, citing a high risk of antibiotic resistance. Sadly, the UK has yet to catch up. A recent petition to the government to ban Triclosan from UK products only managed to reach a pathetic 18 signatures before the General Election was called and all petitions were halted, which really shows how unaware most of us are when it comes to knowing what’s in our everyday products.
The bottom line is, dump the antibacterial hand gel and pick up a bar of soap. You’ll be doing yourself, mankind, and modern medicine a world of good.
Words: Anna Lim (Horticultural Technician at the University of Bristol) and Thamasha Perera (Science Technician).