Are Antimicrobial Soaps Breeding Tougher Bugs?

(Jupiter Images/Royalty-free/corbis)
By Ranit Mishori
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 13, 2007

If cleanliness is next to godliness, modern America is the land of the faithful -- fighting the good fight against today's so-called superbugs with sparkling countertops and well-washed hands.

Our culture's cleanliness obsession has been fed by a booming business in household products that promise the virtue of sterility. According to estimates by the Environmental Protection Agency, our antimicrobial crusade has us spending almost $1 billion annually on soaps and detergents, toys and cutting boards, bedsheets and toothbrushes, all of them treated with chemical compounds designed to kill the germs that cling to them. At the forefront of this product niche is the antimicrobial hand wash, commonly fortified with the bug-battling chemical triclosan.

It may be a dangerous, germ-filled world out there, but with your little bottle of -- choose one: Dial, Safeguard, Palmolive -- you can stroll worry-free through it.

Or so you may think.

How Soaps Work and How to Wash Properly

Clean, by the Books

The problem about our obsession with killing germs, some scientists and public health advocates warn, is that it may ultimately do us more harm than good.

Chief among those skeptics is microbiologist Stuart Levy of Tufts University School of Medicine, president of the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics (APUA). Levy's research has led him to question why "antibacterial ingredients, once successfully used to prevent transmission of disease-causing microorganisms among patients, particularly in hospitals . . . are now being added to products used in healthy households . . . even though an added health benefit has not been demonstrated."

That's happening, Levy says, despite several "potential negative consequences" of these products, including weakening the immune system, which could lead to a greater chance of allergies in children, and their possible link to the emergence of antibiotic resistance -- the very problem that is making some diseases, such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, so difficult to treat.

Members of the manufacturing industry, meanwhile, including Brian Sansoni, vice president of communications at the Soap and Detergent Association, contend that consumers can use these products "with confidence" because "they reduce or kill germs on the skin that can make us sick."

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company