Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Save the World! Boycott Antibiotic Soaps

I try not to use this blog as a soap box, but this issue is too important to ignore. I'm currently studying microbiology, and I want to take a moment to educate you about a real problem you may not be aware of or may not understand fully. Consider this a Public Service Announcement.

More and more we're encountering antibiotic-resistant bacteria (e.g. MRSA and VRE). 

There are a lot of problems in the world today, and it can often seem that there is little that you, the conscientious individual, can do about it. Well, this is an issue that you CAN do something about. STOP USING ANTIBIOTIC SOAPS! Seriously, we should all be boycotting soaps and cleaners that contain antibiotics. If a soap or cleaner claims on the label "Kills 99.9% of bacteria" or something similar, don't buy it. I'll tell you why.

For one, it's a marketing scam. The truth is, soaps kill bacteria just fine by themselves! The detergent action of soaps break down bacterial cell membranes, killing them. This means, if you wash your hands properly, then the bacteria will be killed. There's no need to use antibiotics.

But, you may ask, what's wrong with having a little extra protection? Maybe I can't be bothered to spend 30 seconds scrubbing like I'm supposed to, or maybe I just want a little extra insurance. Antibiotics are a case where "too much of a good thing" is bad. I'll explain why.

Bacteria reproduce really quickly. To give you an idea, E. coli divide once every 20 minutes. As you may remember from your basic genetics, every time a cell divides, there's a chance for random genetic mutation. Since bacteria divide so quickly, these mutations actually crop up pretty often. Besides that, bacteria have mechanisms that cause them to mutate more often because it's advantageous for them to do so. 

Consider a population of bacteria. They're all reproducing like mad, because that's what bacteria do. Every so often, there's a random mutation. Again, these mutations are random, so most of them are either harmful or have no discernible effect. However, due to the very large numbers of bacteria, divisions, and mutations, there are some that will have a beneficial mutation, for example a resistance to an antibiotic. 

Now, you expose that population of bacteria to an antibiotic. Most of the bacteria are killed by it, but there are a few that have a mutation that makes them resistant. They aren't harmed by the antibiotic, so they keep growing and dividing. Before long you have a population of bacteria that are ALL resistant to the antibiotic, because each parent cell passes its genes (including the beneficial mutation) to all its daughter cells. Any cells that mutate to the wild form without the antibiotic resistance (called back mutation) will be killed by the antibiotic.

So, when you expose bacteria to antibiotics that aren't needed, you're doing a disservice to not only yourself, but everyone else. The more bacteria are exposed to antibiotics, the more antibiotic-resistant bacteria we'll have. 

Every dollar you spend is a vote, my friends. Right now the companies who make these antibacterial products are capitalizing on your ignorance. What they're doing is at best misguided, at worst unethical. Let's save the antibiotics for people who are sick, who really need them. If we continue this madness, before too long most bacteria will be antibiotic-resistant.

People love to blame doctors for this, saying they're too quick to prescribe antibiotics. There is some truth to that. But each and every one of us can do something about this problem: boycott antibiotic soaps. They're unnecessary and ultimately harmful.