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Welcome to the Greenwood.Net Curiosity Corner

Antibacterial Soaps

Sep 22, 2021

Curiosity Corner
Dr. Jerry D. Wilson,
Professor Emeritus of Physics
Lander University

Question: Dr. Wilson, some soaps and cleaners are advertised to “kill 99.99% of germs.” How do they know this and what does the killing? (Asked by an anonymous sanitizer from cyberspace.)

Reply: Germs are microorganisms, and the term “germ” is usually used to refer to pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria. I assume the kill percentage is obtained with bacterial cultures. You swab the unwashed hands and inoculate a culture plate on which bacteria colonies will grow. Then, you wash the hands with “antibacterial” soap and take another swab. The second plate would be virtually empty of colonies if 99.99% of bacteria were killed. How they get down to the .99% I do not know.

Most liquid soaps contain bacteria-killing chemicals, such as alcohol or chlorine. But antibacterial soaps contain additional chemicals, such as triclosan or triclocarbon. Both are highly effective in killing bacteria. However, recent studies have shown that antibacterial soaps are no more effective than plain soaps in reducing bacteria levels on the hands. The difference is that plain soap washing requires a longer washing time.

How long? One researcher suggested as long as it takes to sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” (I always visualize surgeons before an operation scrubbing up big time with brushes like you see in old movies, or in the “scrub room” on M*A*S*H*.)

In hospitals, antibacterial soaps may be helpful in killing bacteria that can be spread when the staff goes from one patient to another. However, the wide spread use of antibacterial chemicals could lead to the mutation of bacteria that become resistant to them. Also, bacteria could become resistant to antibiotics after exposure to the chemicals.

I’ll talk more about bacteria next week. Not all bacteria are “germs” (pathogens). In fact, we could not live without some of the little critters.

C.P.S. (Curious Postscript): “Live in such a way that you would not be ashamed to sell your parrot to the town gossip.” -Will Rogers

Curious about something? Send your questions to Dr. Jerry D. Wilson, College of Science and Mathematics, Lander University, Greenwood, SC, 29649, or email jerry@curiosity-corner.net. Selected questions will appear in the Curiosity Corner. For Curiosity Corner background, go to www.curiosity-corner.net.

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