Is refillable bulk soap worth the risk?

Mike Sullivan writes his latest hand hygiene blog for the ECJ website. He discusses the use of bulk fill dispensers – where the soap is poured into an open reservoir at the top of the unit – and looks at the hygiene risks associated with them.

Sometimes in life, we are able to see the hazards ahead, and take action to avoid them. Road signs inform us of skid risks and dangerous corners, while a red flag on the beach is a clear indication that swimming is not advisable.

June’s forest fires in Indonesia caused high levels of smog which affected Singapore and Malaysia, producing a clearly visible haze of pollution that prompted the authorities to cancel some outdoor events and advise people to wear face masks.

However, other hazards will remain unseen, and this is particularly applicable when it comes to germ-related illness. The micro-organisms and pathogens that spread infections lurk invisibly in the atmosphere, and settle on surfaces where human touch spreads them even further.

We are regularly treated to gruesome stories in the media informing us of the number of germs in a typical woman’s handbag, or present on smartphones and remote control devices, which provoke much debate, and plenty of revulsion.

Thorough and effective cleaning regimes can be a powerful ally in the war against the spread of infections, and practising good hand hygiene complements this perfectly, especially in a work setting. Workplace absenteeism through illness incurs significant costs to employers, in terms of both money lost and a decrease in service delivery, which can also have a negative effect on customer satisfaction. It also puts added pressure on the colleagues of those who are absent, who will undoubtedly have to pick up the resulting extra work.

To encourage employees to practise good hand hygiene they need access to systems that combine good aesthetics, accessibility and ease of use, whilst being equipped with pleasant and effective hygienically advanced formulations. To put it simply, products and systems that people actually want to use.

When a company invests in a hand hygiene system they understandably expect it to deliver the highest standards of cleanliness, resulting in the increased well-being of their workforce. They certainly would not expect their employees to leave the washroom with more germs on their hands than before they washed them – and this is why the method used to refill dispensers is such a crucial consideration.

A bulk fill dispenser is one where the soap is poured into an open reservoir at the top of the unit. Because the reservoir is open to the environment, bacteria can contaminate the soap, which leads to the formation of a bacterial biofilm on the inside of the dispenser.

Biofilms are groups of bacteria that coat surfaces and are difficult to wash off or ‘kill’. Because the biofilm is formed on the inside of the dispenser it leads to bacterial contamination of any new soap that is subsequently added to the dispenser.

Three recently published studies revealed some of the problems posed by refillable bulk soap including:

• 25 per cent of public refillable bulk soap dispensers are contaminated with unsafe levels of bacteria(1)

• Refillable bulk dispensers can leave hands with 25 times more bacteria after washing(2)

• Biofilms in refillable bulk soap dispensers cause recontamination even after the dispensers are cleaned with bleach(3)

This doesn’t make for comfortable reading, but there is an alternative. Sanitary sealed refills are increasing in popularity because the product inside is protected from contamination, as it is factory sealed and includes a fresh valve with each refill. This means that the soap is never open to the environment and so cross contamination from the air or other sources is prevented.

The hygiene and health benefits are obvious – and in addition they also make for efficient use of time for hard-pressed maintenance staff, because they are so much simpler and quicker to replace.

Employers are always keen to read the ‘small print’ when it comes to doing business – and those that take the welfare of their employees seriously would also be wise to consider the ‘unseen’ when investing in hand hygiene systems.