Antibacterial products in the home

01 Oct 2019

When most incoming first year students consider what university life will be like, we wonder how lectures will go, who we’ll be friends with or where to travel during spring holidays.  Anxiety-inducing thoughts of what could possibly go wrong are mainly pushed into the dark recesses of the mind, saved for times we’re feeling insecure or nervous about the future.  The idea of having a baby right before second year exams is enough to make us break out into a cold sweat.  

No one in their right mind would want to combine the two experiences, right?  Sleep deprived nights that involve dirty nappies instead of drinking and dancing; having to wade through research papers for both your microbiology report and which method of weaning to solid foods is best; trying to keep up with extracurriculars whilst finding a sensory play group that fits around your labs and lectures?  Say no more, I’m already getting heart palpitations just thinking about it!  

Except, oh wait - I did that! Willingly too I might add.

The thing is, when I started uni I was 30.  Prior to applying to UCAS, I wanted to change my career to microbiology, something I loved learning about, but I also really wanted to have a baby.  That, on top of threatening headlines from news stories warning of aging eggs and the NHS label of “geriatric pregnancy” when you turn 35, took the option of waiting until after I graduated off the table.  

As a modern woman with a supportive partner, I bought into the theory that I could “do it all” and so far things have gone fairly to plan with only a few bumps along the way.  Reflecting on the past two years, I can see how motherhood has shaped how I study in terms of how I organise and prioritise my time, but I can also see how studying microbiology has changed my everyday attitudes and influenced my view of the world in a way that I feel positively affects my family.  

One thing that I’m aware of now that I’m a student of microbiology is the abundance of antibacterial products surrounding us.  During a meet-the-faculty lunch for our microbiology department, I got the opportunity to chat with one of my lecturers and NHS Consultant Microbiologist, Professor Stephanie Dancer who discussed with me why antibacterial cleaning products in your household should be replaced with simple soaps and detergents and how many people are just unaware of the link between these products and antimicrobial resistance (AMR).  

More and more people it seems are learning about how prescribed antibiotic misuse is contributing to AMR.  However, I had never really heard much on the effect which antibacterial cleaning and hygiene products have on AMR other than the ubiquitous comment “if it kills 99.9% of germs, what about the other 0.1%?” which is usually briefly considered then promptly forgotten.  

Following my chat with Professor Dancer, I started to notice antibacterial products everywhere, especially in relation to babies.  Over the next two year, I was encouraged to spray down my yoga mat with antibacterial spray after a mommy-and-me vinyasa session.  Antibacterial dummy wipes were sent in a care package from my mother-in-law.  Many new mommy friends religiously used gel hand sanitiser and insisted you use it before touching their precious.

Shouldn’t there be a more public conversation about these products?  When I was 18 and living on my own for the first time, I bought a bar of antibacterial soap, earnestly thinking “oh that will be good for my skin, kill all those nasty germs”.  However, after using the soap for a couple of weeks I developed itchy, painful pimples all over my body.  A trip to the GP informed me that I had staph pustules and that they would clear up if I laid off the antibacterial soap.  No one had told me that could happen and it certainly wasn’t listed as a side effect on the soap packaging!

In the last two years it seems that more awareness is creeping in, especially pertaining to products that use triclosan as their biocidal ingredient.  In 2017, researchers at the University of Birmingham published a paper on the effects of low doses of triclosan and found that bacteria with certain mutations can increase their stress responses, such as upregulating the production of efflux pumps, making them less susceptible to triclosan.1  Due to papers like this one, a number of antimicrobials, including triclosan, were banned from some products in the US, but the scope was fairly limited and more research needs to be done for policy to accurately reflect the science.2

Now that I’m studying microbiology, I am more cautious about the products I purchase as I know their potential for harm.  If any of the Staphylococcus aureus living on my skin at 18 had already been drug-resistant, I could have been facing a serious infection.  The thought that a freely available product could similarly endanger my son and put him at risk of acquiring a drug-resistant infection is scary.  Still, even though I know these products can potentially add to AMR, I’m guilty of not talking to people I see using them; of not wanting to be labelled as that mom who tells you what you should be doing with your child.  If the antivax movement tells us anything, it’s that beliefs are hard to change, especially when they involve your children.

However, as I move closer towards establishing a career in the field of microbiology, I can personally see how lecturers, researchers and societies like SfAM are working toward changing the image of bacteria away from that of “evil villains which must be eliminated from all surfaces”.  I was pleasantly surprised one day when I watched a favourite comedic Youtuber with 3.7 million subscribers break from his normal content to fairly accurately comment on how antibacterial products can contribute to AMR.  This tells me that the hard work many microbiologists are putting into science communication and policy is paying off and that hopefully public awareness will enter log phase.

Further reading and watching:

1.     Webber, M., Buckner, M., Redgrave, L., Ifill, G., Mitchenall, L., Webb, C., …Piddock, L. (2017). Quinolone-resistant gyrase mutants demonstrate decreased susceptibility to triclosan. Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, 72(10), 2755-2763.
2.    Halden, R. U., Lindeman, A. E., Aiello, A. E., Andrews, D., Arnold, W. A., Fair, P., … Blum, A. (2017). The Florence statement on triclosan and triclocarban. Environ. Health. Perspect. 125(6):064501. 

Venter, H., Henningsen, M. L., & Begg, S. L. (2017). Antimicrobial resistance in healthcare, agriculture and the environment: the biochemistry behind the headlines. Essays in biochemistry, 61(1), 1–10.

Good Mythical MORE: “Cleaning Wipes Product Test”