Meet the scientists who are anti antibacterial soap, and why you should consider making the change in your own home

If the past year had a slogan it would be “Wash your hands”. This simple action has been drilled into us worldwide, with washing stations now situated everywhere from shops to nightclubs. This has no-doubt greatly contributed to slowing the spread of the Coronavirus, but for scientists studying antimicrobial resistance, this presents a moral dilemma.

Most of us now feel a sense of safety at the ’kills 99.9% bacteria’ label splashed proudly across our soap bottles, blissfully unaware that certain chemicals in such soaps may be contributing the development of antimicrobial resistant (AMR) ‘superbugs’.

AMR refers to changes that occur in bacteria, viruses and fungi that enable them to evade being killed by antimicrobial products including antibiotic medications. Overuse of such products, such as in hand-soaps, cleaning products and the over-prescription of antibiotic medications, is thought to be the greatest driver behind this phenomenon. This is largely due to the 0.1% of bacteria that survive and are able to reproduce and pass on their resistance genes to new superbugs. Antimicrobials are vital to the treatment of communicable diseases, supporting human, plant and animal health. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared AMR to be one of the top threats to global public health that we face today, predicted to be responsible for as many as 10 million deaths by 2050. In the US alone, antibiotic resistant infections account for 2.8 million treated infections, and over 35 000 deaths each year.

These statistics may be scary, but the good news is that we can be part of the solution! Simply washing your hands with soap instead of antibacterial products is shown to be just as effective in stopping the spread of harmful germs. Theresa M. Michelle, MD, of the US Federal Drug Administration’s (FDA) Division of Non-Prescription Drugs states that “there’s no data demonstrating that these drugs provide additional protection from diseases and infections”.

In light of this, scientists at Monash University’s Centre to Impact Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) are working to rid the public of their fear of the ‘B’ word and encourage more Aussies to make the soap switch[1]. The institute’s director, Professor Trevor Lithgow, explains that antimicrobial drugs in laundry and cleaning products is purely a marketing gimmick. “The thought is, ‘I want my hands to be sterile, so I use antibacterial soaps’. But it’s a false logic and a misunderstanding people have.”

As the world continues to struggle amidst a global pandemic, there’s definitely been an easier time to introduce such a public health campaign, however this conversation can wait no longer. Already in 2016, the US FDA banned 19 chemicals from soaps, including the ubiquitous antimicrobials triclosan and triclorban, simply due to their lack of function in such products.  Lithgow and his team are on a mission not to let Australia fall behind in the fight against AMR, to ensure our long-term health and ability to treat infectious diseases.

The message certainly isn’t to stop washing your hands. Handwashing and soap are both vital components of good hygiene. But next time you hit the supermarket, take look at what’s in the products you’re choosing for your home and bathroom and consider avoiding those with antimicrobial agents. Stopping AMR may is in our hands after all!

[1] Monash University. Feeding the Superbugs: Why we need to wash our hands of antibacterial soaps. (March 2021). Accessed 22 April 2021. Available from

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