Natural anti-bacterial hand washes

MRSA seems to be mentioned in news reports on an almost weekly basis.  Hospitals are determined to eradicate this so called ‘super bug’ and hand-washing has become a major focus in all wards, with hand washing points often found at each bedside.

MRSA is the shortened term for Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (quite a mouthful!).  Staphylococcus aureus is a type of bacteria and methicillin is an antibiotic of the penicillin class.  So MRSA infection is infection by bacteria that have become resistant to a common antibiotic.  Worryingly, MRSA is now being seen in the community as well as hospitals. 

Staphylociccus aureus bacteria is a very common bacterium, found on the skin of many healthy individuals.  The problem with MRSA is that certain strains, or types, of this common bacteria have evolved an ability to survive treatment with certain antibiotics, they have become resistant.  In hospitals, especially where patients have open wounds and weakened immune systems, individuals are at a greater risk of infection by MRSA and the bacteria cause a bigger problem.  Visitors to the hospitals may be bringing in bacteria that may not be causing them a problem, but to a sick person represent quite a danger.  Hand-washing, personal hygiene and efficient cleaning are really simple, inexpensive and effective ways of preventing bacterial infections and spread.

Hand-washes can be soap based or alcohol based (which don’t require water and rinsing).  In the home numerous hand washes are now available and they appear to kill the majority of bacteria.  This may not be as great as it sounds!  The problem with these anti-bacterial chemical-based hand washes being used daily in homes is that the bacteria may well be building up resistance to them and they are then less efficient in hospital settings where the dangers of infection are far greater.  In addition to this many people are beginning to prefer not to use harsh chemicals in their home for ecological reasons or on their skin for health reasons. 

Evidence is mounting for natural products and ingredients that are capable of killing the MRSA and other resistant bacteria.  The two that I would like to concentrate on are tea-tree oil and honey


Tea Tree Oil

Laboratory studies (1,2,3) have found that tea-tree oil has very powerful anti-bacterial effects and may represent a useful alternative to chemical base antibacterial washes.  Washing with products containing 5% tea tree oil has been found to be effective in removing MRSA on the skin.  A new study (4) is currently underway to investigate the use of tea tree oil body wash in the prevention of MRSA in critically ill hospitalised adults.  The scientists involved are testing a 5% tea tree oil preparation and comparing it with a standard body wash.  The trial was started in November 2007 and will be complete in 2010.  They study scientists say that if the tea tree oil proves effective it would represent a really simple way of improving patient outcomes as well as reducing healthcare costs.  I will certainly be interested in seeing the results. 


Studies (3,5,6) with honey, especially manuka honey, have also shown that this is an effective natural anti-baterial agent.  Oils within manuka honey contain a compound called b-triketone which has powerful antibacterial actions.  One study (5) looked at all kinds of honeys and their action against Staphylococcis aureus.  Only the manuka honey showed significant antibacterial activity against this bacteria.

There are many hand-washes and soaps available to buy that containing both natural honey and tea-tree oil.  These products tend to be kinder to the skin than chamical products but still very effective.  One product I have recently come across is a soap made by Comvita, it contains both tee tree oil and manuka honey.  You may wish to try changing or alternating the types of washes you use in our home rather than always sticking to the same brand, this could be a useful way of combating bacterial resistance. 


(1)Park H et al.  2007.  Antibacterial effect of tea-tree oil on methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus biofilm formation of the tympanostomy tube: an in vitro study.  In Vivo.  21:1027-1030
(2)LaPlante KL.  2007.  In vitro activity of lysostaphin, mupirocin, and tea tree oil against clinical methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.  Diagn Microbiol Infect Dis.  57:413-418
(3) Christoph F et al.  2000.  A comparative study of the in vitro antimicrobial activity of tea tree oils s.l. with special reference to the activity of b-triketones.  Planta Medica.  66(6).
(4)Thompson G et al.  2008.  A randomized controlled trial of tea tree oil (5%) body wash versus standard body wash to prevent colonization with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in critically ill adults: research protocol.  BMC Infect Dis.  8:161
(5)Allen K L et al.  1991.  A survey of the antibacterial activity of some New Zealand honeys.  J Pharm Pharmacol.  43(12):817-822.
(6)Lusby PE et al.  2005.  Bactericidal activity of different honeys against pathogenic bacteria.  Arch Med Res.  36(5):464-467.

Written by Ani Kowal