Neosporin is the go-to for scrapes, cuts, and so much more. Hangnail? Use Neosporin. Burn? Dab Neosporin. Busted pimple? Smear Neosporin. It’s the trusted ointment found in any well-equipped first-aid kit, and it’s touted by its manufacturer Johnson & Johnson as the “#1 Dr. Recommended Brand.”
The over-the-counter antibiotic ointment kind of reminds me of the Windex reference in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. In the flick, the father of the bride jokes that the window cleaner is a cure-all used on anything and everything from “psoriasis to poison ivy,” and repeatedly demonstrates its supposed versatility.
Clearly, Windex – albeit a household name – is pretty toxic. And in the face of the current epidemic of antibiotic resistance, Neosporin ingredients may hurt more than they heal.
“The general consensus among patients I see in the office is that the use of this medicine ‘prevents infection,’ ‘helps wounds heal faster,’ and ‘helps prevent scarring.’ Essentially none of this is true,” writes doctor and author William Rawlings in an online essay titled Pet Peeves of a Private Practitioner—Part II: Neosporin. Dr. Rawlings adds that there is scant evidence that Neosporin does much of anything. Moreover, there are excellent reasons not to use it.
The Dangers of Neosporin
Neosporin and other antibacterial ointments may be one of the factors behind the spread of an especially lethal strain of MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), called USA300, according to a study published in Emerging Infectious Diseases.
MRSA bacteria spread through skin-to-skin contact and often strike people who are prone to cuts and scrapes, like children and athletes. (Though its name indicates its resistance to methicillin, MRSA is also resistant to common antibiotics like penicillin and amoxicillin.)
Researchers found that nearly half of the USA300 samples they studied grew unhampered by two of the antibiotics found in both Polysporin and Neosporin (bacitracin and neomycin), indicating that they were resistant to both drugs. Another USA300 sample was resistant to bacitracin, but susceptible to neomycin.
Triple antibiotic ointment is rarely used outside America, and resistance to bacitracin and neomycin was only found in USA300, a type of MRSA found in the United States. Johnson & Johnson, which garnered $28.1 billion in worldwide sales in 2013, claims that the study doesn’t prove a link between the ointments and MRSA resistance to antibiotics.
The Epidemic of Antibiotic Resistance
Experts warn that deaths from minor things like cuts, diarrhea, and pneumonia will soon become a common occurrence as antibiotics lose their power to fight infections. The World Health Organization says the threatens to turn the clock back on modern medicine, and is far worse than the AIDS epidemic.
Tackling the problem will require new antibiotics, but few are being developed, because there is little profit to be made from drugs that must be used briefly and sparingly. And speaking of sparingly, Neosporin must be used as such: “People should understand that triple antibiotic is not almighty, and avoid preventive or excessive use of this ointment,” said Japanese researcher David Suzuki in an email to CNN.
Neosporin’s ingredient list includes not one or two, but three antibiotics: Neomycin, Polymyxin B, and Bacitracin. Other ingredients include cocoa butter, cottonseed oil (likely genetically modified), olive oil, sodium pyruvate, vitamin E, and white (crude oil).
Could Your Ointment Be Making Your Cut Worse?
Have you ever put Neosporin on a wound only to realize that days later, your cut has turned into a full-fledged infection? Chances are you’ll just apply even more ointment. But did you ever consider that it’s the cream that’s making your wound worse?
“I see allergic contact dermatitis to this ointment all the time. I no longer recommend it to my patients,” says Charles E. Crutchfield III, MD, Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. The local irritation and inflammation from the dermatitis only prolongs wound healing time — the exact opposite of your intention in using it in the first place!
“The ointment on inflamed skin is a quick ticket to a drug reaction, not to mention a trip to the doctor. The manufacturer will argue, no doubt, that such would be a misuse of the product. Based on my long experience in the practice of medicine, they overestimate how often people actually read the label at all. It’s late at night, you’ve got an itchy rash, so you grab a tube of cream from the medicine cabinet and rub it on it,” Dr. Crutchfield writes.
If an area that should be healing is getting worse despite diligent application of Neosporin, you know there is a problem. And since we now know that antibiotic treatments should be used as a last resort, it’s best to reconsider using it at all.
Maryam Henein is an investigative journalist, professional researcher, and producer of the award-winning documentary Vanishing of the Bees.
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