Monday, September 5, 2016

Thinking About Soap

Apparently bar soap has developed a bad reputation.  Sales have fallen 5% over the last 5 years.  This CNN story from late last month tells us:  “Forty eight percent of consumers think bar soaps can be a haven for bacteria…Young consumers [18-24] believe this the most, with 60%” of them worried about germs on the soap.  To justify this silliness, many simply believe "Bar soap is for old people."

Silliness, indeed!  Think about it for a minute.  You come in from the garden, for instance, and wash your hands.  You have dirt and germs on your hands.  When you finish washing, are there germs left on the soap?  Yes.  Are there germs left on your hands and on the towel?  Yes, a few.  But having a few germs left behind, unless they are the really dangerous kind, is not dangerous and helps your immune system maintain vigilance against all the germs you are exposed to every day.

What about all those germs on the soap?  You come in again and wash your hands, which already have germs on them.  Both the germs from the garden and from the soap are washed down the drain again with very few left on your hands.

Some people say you should rinse the germs off the soap first.  Others say you should have a separate bar for each member of the family.  Well, the CDC, the people who watch out for our health, actually has instructions on hand washing.  The first steps are to wet your hands with clean, running water, turn off the tap, and apply soap, then lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap.  No mention of the need to rinse germs off the soap or have a separate bar for each person.  Also, don’t you think you are exposed to family germs in many more ways than what’s left on the soap (and mostly washed down the drain)?

The science on the subject is clear.  In 1988 the National Institutes of Health (NIH) published the results of research showing “little hazard exists in routine handwashing with previously used soap bars” and strongly endorsing “the frequent use of soap and water for handwashing to prevent the spread of disease.”

In 2007 The New York Times reiterated the advice in an article:  “Does sharing soap within the family spread germs?”  Their conclusion – “washing even with contaminated bar soap is unlikely to transfer bacteria.”

A 2015 NPR headline read:  “Your Soap Has Bacteria In It, But It Still Gets You Clean.”  And Huffington Posts explains: “Germs can and most likely do live on all bars of soap, but it’s very unlikely they will make you sick or cause a skin infection…If you are healthy, your body will have no problem fending off the germs.”

People, who want to ignore this advice, argue that we should use antibacterial soap to be really safe, but the FDA recently banned 19 ingredients from antibacterial soaps.  Here is a rather long excerpt from a CBS News story quoting an FDA press statement:  “Consumers may think antibacterial washes are more effective at preventing the spread of germs, but we have no scientific evidence that they are any better than plain soap and water.  In fact, some data suggests that antibacterial ingredients may do more harm than good over the long-term.”  Knowledge about the effects of certain chemicals that may be absorbed by the body from antibacterial products is lacking.

There are two additional concerns.  One is that the widespread use of antibacterial products can lead to further development of “super bugs,” similar to overuse of prescribed antibiotics.  Another concern is the effects of excessive cleanliness on the body's ability to build normal immunity to bacteria, especially for children.

So where does this baseless reaction to bar soap come from?  Germs are invisible and can be deadly.  That’s a scary combination.  Plus, who wants to be acting like old people when there is so much pressure to be cool and hip?   Add to that the constant and rapid spread of misinformation on social media, enhanced by the habit of not verifying, suspecting or even clearly thinking it through.  Throw in that many Americans don’t appreciate how lucky they are to have any kind of soap and running water, and you have a recipe for unreasonable behavior.  Today it’s soap, tomorrow something else.

Get a grip!  No one has the time or energy to worry about everything.  If the fear of germs on soap is a big enough worry to take action on, something is seriously out of proportion.

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