We all know them – they are sold in stores everywhere now: antibacterial wipes that promise instant sanitization and destruction of all germs, when you have no soap and water handy. But despite their popular use, are they really doing their job? Are antibacterial wipes really effective?
There’s an antibacterial wipe to suit all purposes Such is their popularity that antibacterial wipes now come in all shapes and sizes, suited for a range of different functions. They are often packed in a roll in a dispenser which allows you to pull out a single wipe at a time – especially convenient for use in the car or when out and about, especially with a young child or handling animals or just the general outdoors. Some are even designed to be used around the home, such as sanitising countertops in the kitchen.
While all antibacterial wipes are embedded with an antibacterial solution that is designed to kill most bacteria on impact, there can be differences in the formulation, depending on the intended surface. For example, wipes that are intended for the hands and other parts of the body will usually have a milder antibacterial solution and will often incorporate moisturisers into the formula, so that the skin can be soothed at the same time. On the other hand, antibacterial wipes designed for cleaning around the home will be impregnated with much harsher solutions, as household surfaces are far less delicate and sensitive than human skin.
But are they killing germs or spreading germs?
While antibacterial wipes are designed to kill the majority of bacteria on a surface – and used properly, they do fulfil this function – however, in many aspects of daily life, incorrect use means that they do little better than an ordinary paper towel – in fact, in some cases, they may even transfer bacteria!
Researchers at Welsh School of Pharmacy at Cardiff University in Wales performed tests using 3 different types of commercially available antibacterial wipes on surfaces that had been purposefully contaminated with Staphylococcus aureus bacteria, including the dangerous methicillin-resistant strain (MRSA). They wanted to test how well each brand of antibacterial wipe removed, killed or prevented the transfer of bacteria between surfaces. The wipes they used were impregnated either with natural (plant-derived) antibacterial substances or conventional disinfectants. They discovered that while disinfectants were more effective at destroying bacteria, they did not remove as much bacteria from the surface as the natural antibacterial wipes.
Furthermore, they found that if the wipes were used more than once, they could easily transfer bacteria between surfaces – this meant that they were actually spreading bacteria rather than destroying and reducing it! In addition, because the wipes would eliminate some bacteria from the surfaces, this reduced competition for the remaining bacteria which would quickly multiply in the absence of competition and re-colonise the entire surface.
A deadlier problem
Researchers are concerned that not only may the wipes not be doing their job but they may actually – inadvertently – be making the situation worse. This is because constant use of such products may actually encourage the proliferation of “super-bugs” – bacteria which become very resistant to antibacterial products and even antibiotics.
In a natural situation, bacteria would compete amongst themselves for available resources and this effectively places a sort of restraint on certain more aggressive strains – however, by removing all the weaker bacteria using the antibacterial wipes, this allows the more aggressive bacterial species to flourish. Thus, antibacterial wipes may be lulling us into a false sense of security when in fact, they could be contributing to an even bigger problem.
A simple answer
Part of the problem, say many doctors and top researchers, is that people confuse disinfection with sterilisation. There is no need, in fact, for sterilisation – the killing of all bacteria – in most everyday situations. Our bodies have evolved to deal with a certain amount of bacteria in our environment and studies even show that over-sterilisation, particularly in children, can even lead to auto-immune problems. Therefore, simple cleaning is often more than effective for health and hygiene, with no need for aggressive antibacterial agents. Thorough washing with hot soapy water will kill most germs. Having a packet of antibacterial wipes can certainly be handy when travelling or similar but it is best not to overuse them in daily life.