Bulk Soap – Health Risk?

“Every time you use soap from an open refillable bulk soap reservoir dispenser, you could be putting hundreds of millions of fecal bacteria on your hands, which is actually more than is in the toilet after you flush it,” said Dr. Charles P. Gerba, microbiologist from the University of Arizona in Tucson.

The studies, conducted by the University of Arizona under the direction of Gerba, showed that approximately 23 to 25% of samples taken from open refillable bulk soap reservoir dispensers were contaminated with bacteria. Coliforms, illness causing fecal-based organisms, were found in 16 to 22% of the samples.

The amount of contamination was higher in samples collected from health and fitness facilities. There, 33% of random samples taken from open refillable soap dispensers were contaminated with bacteria. Coliforms were found in over 50% of the contaminated samples. Gerba suspected that the number of contaminates was higher due to the warmer environment in showers and sinks located in locker room areas.

The findings from these studies were presented at a meeting of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) in Toronto, Canada and were also presented in June 2009 at the National Environmental Health Association’s Annual Conference.

Open refillable bulk soap reservoir dispensers utilize a refillable container from which product is dispensed. It is refilled by pouring soap into the container on an “as needed” basis.

According to Gerba, the bacteria that were found were opportunistic pathogens. These included Klebsiella, Enterobacter, and Serratia. Opportunistic pathogens are capable of causing serious infections in young people and people who are immunocompromised. He explained that these infections can range from eye, skin or respiratory infections.

Although young people and those who are immunocompromised are at greater risk of infection, Gerba says everyone is susceptible, especially if you have abrasions or open cuts or wounds. He adds that by washing your hands with contaminated soap, there is also the potential of spreading the germs each time you touch another surface.

The studies showed that no pathogens were found in soap collected from sealed systems.

Gerba explained: “A sealed system is sealed at the factory during manufacturing where the bulk system is actually refilled at the facility. It (bulk soap) may actually be diluted with water and may be contaminated from the water and people putting their fingers in the soap. That doesn’t happen with a sealed system.”