Medicated soap: more harm than good?
Publish Date: Jan 06, 2014
Medicated soap: more harm than good?
Washing your hands with ordinary soap and water gets rid of bacteria and germs
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By John Agaba

The world over, medicated soap sells like hot cakes. This is mainly because medicated soap is believed to kill bacteria and deactivate viruses. However, some experts dispute this.

Recently, the US Food and Drug Administration released new guidelines requiring manufacturers of antibacterial/ medicated hand soap and body washes to prove that their products are safe.

Under the new guidelines, antibacterial soap makers would also have to prove that their products perform much better than ordinary soap and water, if they are to stay on the market. The agency officials said there was little evidence to suggest that antibacterial soap is actually more effective at preventing illnesses than ordinary soap and water.

On the other hand, they said some data suggests that long-term exposure to some of the chemicals in antibacterial soap could actually pose health dangers such as bacterial resistance to antibiotics, or even cause some hormonal effects.

Why Ugandans buy medicated soap?

Some people buy medicated soap for home-use, while others buy it for their children in boarding schools. “Others use medicated soap because they perceive it as cool,” says Amos Twiine, a student at Kyambogo University.

According to Lillian Namuli, a mother of two, antibacterial soap helps clear her skin of blemishes, leaving it smooth.

Who approves imported medicated soap?

According to Ben Manyindo, the Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS) executive director, all soap, antibacterial or not, should be checked to verify whether it meets the standards or poses any potential risks.

He, however, says that the role of ascertaining whether the medicated soap in Uganda is harmful or not is a responsibility of the National Drug Authority.

“Anything that has a medical claim is handled by the National Drug Authority,” he says. “They should verify if the soaps are harmful or not.”

However, when contacted, National Drug Authority’s executive director, Dr. Gordon Sematiko, said, the authority was not verifying the efficacy of the soaps or whether they were harmful, adding that their jurisdiction only stops on drugs.

“Our laws restrict us to drugs,” he said. “We are trying to amend the laws so that they can also cover food and cosmetics. But we are still in the process. However, UNBS carried out a campaign against all cosmetics in 2013. Those products that were below standard, were impounded.”

Do you really need antibacterial soap?

According to Dr. Ben Obwot, a dermatologist at Benedict Medical Centre in Luzira, Kampala, there is no clear proof that medicated antibacterial soap provides additional protection and performs much better than ordinary soap — the same argument fronted by the US Food and Drug Administration.

He says using antibacterial soaps does not necessarily make one more immune to diseases. “Most of these soaps are deceptive,” he says.

“They are hyped yet actually there is no extra protection they offer. The problem is that many people don’t know how to wash their hands. They just wet them and think they are clean. But if you wash your hands well with ordinary soap and running water, you get rid of all the germs,” Obwot says.

Some people use only antibacterial soap to bathe.

However, he says antibacterial soap is recommended in case one has a low immunity and one’s skin cannot ably take care of itself.

“This is when we recommend medicated soap. However, a problem arises when the bacteria develop resistance,” he says.

Dr. Iheme Ogbonnaya, a consultant physician in Abuja, Nigeriasays a doctor can prescribe medicated soap in case a patient has infections like scabies or other parasitic skin infections. “But ordinarily, if the skin is intact, doctors do not recommend medicated soap.” 

'Medicated soaps weaken normal flora of the skin'

Dr. Ben Obwot, a dermatologist at Benedict Medical Centre in Luzira, Kampala, says much as medicated soap contains amounts of anti-bacterial properties, the dosage is not enough to fully incapacitate the bacteria and when used over time may result in the bacteria developing resistance to the antibacterials.

“The amount of antibacterial properties put in these soaps is not in high concentrations to effectively suppress the bacteria,” he says, “and with time, the bacteria can develop resistance to these antibacterials that should you use them later, they won’t work. It is like antimalarials.

“If someone is exposed to little dosages, with time, the drugs cease to work,” explains Obwot.

He adds that people who use antibacterial soaps run the risk of injuring their skin because the soaps contain harmful substances that can damage the normal flora of the skin, making it susceptible to infections.

“Not all bacteria on the body are bad,” he says, “Some are actually important and protect the body from other germs. So when you try to remove all of them, you are weakening your skin’s defence mechanism.”

“The same applies to the vagina. There are bacteria inside the vagina, which if removed, can result in candida,” says Obwot.

Relatedly, Dr. David Ssali, the proprietor of Dama Medicinal Herbs Clinic in Kampala, warns against the use of the ‘so-called medicated’ soaps, emphasizing that “they harmful to the body”.

He says the skin has lots of pores. So whatever you use on it finds its way inside the body. And if it is toxic or contains harmful chemicals, like most medicated soaps do, then it is dangerous.

Ssali says some mediated soaps contain steroids, disinfectants, chlorine and percentages of antibacterials — substances that are harmful and can even cause the skin to break when over-used. He says, ordinarily substances that are not edible should not be used on the skin.

Dr. Iheme Ogbonnaya, a consultant physician in Abuja, Nigeria, recently cautioned against the use of medicated soaps when bathing, saying there wasn’t much proof that they work better than mild or ordinary toilet soaps.

He told the News Agency of Nigeria that the skin has the capacity to clean itself, and that “medicated soaps only kill the normal balance of the skin making you vulnerable.”

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