Bacteria are microscopic, single-cell entities that live by the tens of trillions inside and outside our bodies. They have co-evolved with humans and often protect us from the microbes that can hurt tissue or cause illnesses such as food poisoning, pneumonia, strep throat, and meningitis. The role they actually play in health is only now being studied as part of the National Institute of Health’s Human Microbiome Project.
The development of antibiotics in the 1940s has saved countless lives. The first antibacterial consumer product—Dial soap—followed a short time later, unleashing what ultimately has become a flood of agents promising a “cleaner” clean. Triclosan, the most common ingredient in these products, was introduced in health care settings in the 1960s.
Somewhere along the way, the line between hospital clean, shower clean, and kitchen clean has been blurred.
Today, small quantities of triclosan are present in everything from liquid soaps to deodorants to kitchen-counter cleaners, all of which carry the promise to fight germs, odors, and all sorts of other nasty things. And unlike soap and water or bleach, antibacterial chemicals remain in the environment—on countertops, hands, baby furniture, and in waste water—long after they are applied, continuing to kill or transform bacteria.
The manufacturers of antibacterial products say critics like Levy are making much ado about nothing. “There is no real-world evidence linking the use of antibacterial soaps and cleaning products to antibiotic resistance,” says Brian Sansoni of the Soap and Detergent Association, a trade group with 100 members, based in Washington. It may happen in the lab, but not in the home, he says. “They’re telling a ghost story, but there’s no ghost.”
Soap, water, bleach
Levy counters that there is no evidence demonstrating the beneficial use of antibacterial consumer products, either. He has coauthored research showing that homes using antibacterial products are no healthier than those using soap, water, and other traditional cleaning agents.
He contends the use of antibacterial products should be limited to places where they clearly are necessary—to hospitals and health care facilities. They are not warranted for the general population, he says.
Foxman also believes the risks are too great. “I just don’t think there’s any added value to this extra level [of cleaning]. We don’t want to be without microbes.”
Antibacterials and swine flu
At the moment, however, consumers are voting with their dollars. A 2007 market survey showed that nearly three-quarters of American adults who do some or all of the household cleaning said they preferred antibacterial and germ-killing products. Much of that demand is driven by media attention to public health threats and disease, says Sansoni of the manufacturers’ association. “For us, you can sum up 2009 with four symbols: H1N1.”
In reality, however, antibacterial products—and antibiotics—are largely ineffective against the flu and the common cold, which are caused by viruses. But the public often makes no distinction, nor do advertisers.
“Let’s face it,” says Sansoni, “all this talk about us living in too-clean environments is utopian. What’s the real threat we face? There’s not enough common-sense hygiene.” For Sansoni, a common-sense hygiene routine includes antibacterial products.
For Foxman, however, it means something else: lots of plain soap and water.
Susan Q. Stranahan is a freelance writer who lives in Maine.