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Antibacterial Products: Can You Be Too Clean?
In a world full of runny noses and hacking coughs, some products dispense hopes of germ and illness-free lives. But, as the variety of germ-fighting products continues to rise, medical experts are raising concern over their potential long-term harms.
Waging a War on Germs
Getting sick often comes with taking time off from life's responsibilities and allowing yourself time to recover. Because this is inconvenient, many of us may want to fight back by using products that contain bacteria-killing agents such as triclosan and triclocarban. Many of these products are labeled as antibacterial, antiseptic, or antimicrobial. However, using these products may have damaging long-term effects, which may include impaired immune respose or a build-up of triclosans in the environment.
Widespread use of these products may cause bacteria to mutate and develop a resistance to other bacteria-killing agents. This could make these products less effective in places where it is important that they do work, such as hospitals and healthcare facilities where sick people need to be protected. Bacterial resistance to these products could also result in a cross-resistance to antibiotics that are used to treat people with infections.
Another important concept to understand is not all bacteria are harmful. Some bacteria help us stay healthy by keeping disease-causing bacteria under control. The bacteria-killing agents in products do not recognize the difference and kill both good and bad bacteria. This may result in more, rather than less illnesses.
Hygiene Over Hype
Antibacterial products have grown increasingly popular since they were first introduced—and heavily marketed—in the 1990s. Everyday household products which may contain bacteria-killing agents include:
- Disinfectants, surface cleaners, and window cleaning solutions
- Ointments and non-moisturizing lotions
- Toothpaste and mouthwash
- Surface wipes
If you and your family follow good hygiene measures, you are probably better off not using antibacterial products. However, these products may be appropriate if you have a medical reason and your doctor has told you to use them. You may also need to use these cleaning products in high traffic areas such as the kitchen (especially cutting boards) and bathroom.
When it comes to avoiding disease-causing germs, proper hygiene means more than any product label. To decrease your chances of getting common infections, follow these basic steps:
- Wash your hands—Wash hands thoroughly with plain soap and water. Teach children to do this often, especially before eating, after going to the bathroom, and after school.
- Safely prepare food—Besides cooking meats completely and storing food appropriately, make sure the surfaces on which they are prepared are cleaned.
- Keep your germs off of others—If you are sick, you should cover your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing. Follow-up with proper hand-washing.
The Food and Drug Administration and some states in the US are challenging manufacturers to prove that the chemicals in their soaps and cleaning liquids are safe for long-term use. If not, manufacturers may be forced to remove the chemicals from them. For now, be sure to read the active ingredients on the back of the products you choose and to use them wisely.
Food and Drug Administration
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
Angkadjaja S. What makes antibacterial soap antibacterial? Illumin website. Available at: http://illumin.usc.edu/printer/68/what-makes-antibacterial-soap-antibacterial. Accessed March 16, 2016.
Antibacterial cleaning products. Victoria State Government Better Health Channel website. Available at: http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Antibacterial%5Fcleaning%5Fproducts?open. Updated March 2014. Accessed March 16, 2016.
Antibacterials in household products. Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics. Tufts University website. Available at: http://www.tufts.edu/med/apua/consumers/personal%5Fhome%5F5%5F3590195869.pdf. Accessed March 16, 2016.
Bergstrom KG. Update on antibacterial soaps: the FDA takes a second look at triclosans. J Drugs Dermatol. 2014;13(4):501-503.
FDA taking closer look at antibacterial soap. Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://permanent.access.gpo.gov/gpo44917/UCM378615.pdf. Accessed March 16, 2016.
General background: antibiotic agents. Alliance for the Product Use of Antibiotics website. Available at: http://www.tufts.edu/med/apua/about%5Fissue/agents.shtml#2. Accessed March 16, 2016.
Healthy home tips: Tip 5—Wash those hands, but avoid Triclosan. Environmental Working Group website. Available at: http://www.ewg.org/research/healthy-home-tips/tip-5-wash-those-hands-avoid-triclosan. Accessed March 16, 2016.
Levy S. Antibacterial household products: Cause for concern. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Emerging Infectious Disease. Available at: http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/7/7/01-7705%5Farticle.htm. Updated April 27, 2012. Accessed March 16, 2016.
Minnesota state agencies will no longer purchase products containing triclosan. Beyond Pesticides website. Available at: http://www.beyondpesticides.org/dailynewsblog/?p=9881. Updated March 6, 2013. Accessed March 16, 2016.
- Reviewer: Michael Woods, MD
- Review Date: 03/2016
- Update Date: 03/16/2016