Medicated soaps: More harmful than you think


Many people develop all sorts of skin issues when they use toilet soaps.

From itching to outright blisters, the list is endless. For this category of people who usually complain of skin sensitivity, doctors sometimes advise them to use antibacterial soaps — commonly called medicated soaps.

There are people who simply can’t use any soap that is not antibacterial to bath. Consciously or unconsciously, they readily reach for antibacterial soaps whenever they are shopping for the home. And, in many cases, an entire family can be plugged on, so to say, to using strictly medicated soaps.

This category of soaps has become so popular that manufacturers now make antibacterial hand soaps, detergents, and other products. Yet, physicians contend that using antibacterial soap will not keep one from getting ill; while they agree that though it kills most bacteria, it is absolutely ineffective against viruses.

They agree that washing the hands can reduce the spread of viruses, but if a child comes into close contact with another child who has a cold, even hand washing may not be enough, since he may have inhaled a host of rhinoviruses — that is, viruses that enter the body through the nose.

A dermatologist, Dr. Subair Opaleye, notes that while some people may feel good about using antibacterial soaps, the fact remains that extended use of the products do pose health risks.

He notes that ordinary soaps remove dirt and grime from the skin, as they contain fats which work very effectively as cleansers of grime and dirt. He warns that when soaps are not properly washed and removed from the skin when we take our bath, they can attract dirt, or cause irritation of the skin.

Experts say in areas where the water is hard, “soap residue, if left on the skin, can combine with the calcium and magnesium salts in the water to form a scum, which is really very difficult to remove.”

Researchers argue that generally, soaps remove some natural oils from the skin when we bath, causing dryness. And because of their alkalinity, scientists say, soaps neutralise the natural acidic film on the skin, causing problems in people with dry skin, especially during cold weather and in conditions of low humidity.

Experts say there are many reasons to be concerned about long-term use of antibacterial products such as soap. Top on the list of these concerns is that they may produce bacteria that are resistant to certain anti-bacterials.

“A stronger bacterium means the potential for making people sicker in the future, and having fewer cures to offer them,” researchers contend.

Another concern is that one of the main ingredients in medicated soaps, triclosan, is reportedly showing up in water supply. The presence of triclosan has also been detected in human breast milk, and in oceans. Yet, triclosan is an ingredient found in many consumer products, including mouthwash, toothpastes, soaps, cosmetics, clothing, cookware, furniture and toys.

One study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, suggests that triclosan fuels the development of resistant bacteria in streams and rivers.

Another study, supported by the National Institutes of Health, suggests that triclocarban —another ingredient — may harm nursing babies, because it is an endocrine disruptor that changes the way hormones function in the body, with potentially long-lasting consequences.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University stress that while antibacterial soap in the home might cause a bit of extra protection against common household bacteria, it is not clear how much triclosan might ultimately affect bacteria in the wild, or in human bodies.

An internist with the America-based Mayo Clinic, Dr. James Steckelberg, says when you use a product containing triclosan, you can absorb a small amount through your skin or mouth.

In fact, a 2008 study, designed to assess exposure to triclosan in a representative sample of American children and adults, found triclosan in the urine of nearly 75 per cent of those tested.

“Triclosan isn’t an essential ingredient in many products,” Steckelberg argues. “While triclosan added to toothpaste has been shown to help prevent gingivitis, there’s no evidence that antibacterial soaps and body washes containing triclosan provide any extra benefits, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration,” he adds.

Yet, scientists argue that bacteria do have advantages for human existence. They say, “Bacteria are a necessary part of every ecosystem. We have fantastic bacteria in our guts and on our skin that often kill fungus and actually make us function better.”

Researchers are of the view that large scale elimination of bacteria in the environment through triclosan could have ultimately devastating effects, and is more concerning since we cannot seem to get rid of it.

In addition, physicians believe that “young children need exposure to ‘normal’ bacteria in order to help them build resistance against stronger bacteria. “By having our children use antibacterial soaps, we may in fact be contributing to future health problems for our kids,” Opaleye says.

From the look of things, antibacterial soaps, though they seem such a good idea, may, in fact, be harmful in the long run.

Physicians note that many hospitals are now switching back to using regular soap, and are saving antibacterial hand washing for direct exposure to certain very harmful bacteria. “Many medical experts now advise that people make the switch at home as well, to avoid unpredictable, and possibly damaging, future consequences,” the dermatologist says.

Dermatologists advise that anyone can find a type of soap that suits his or her skin, so that the time spent in the bathroom becomes incredibly enjoyable.

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