The Question Walk into any store selling soap and you'll be overwhelmed by the array of antibacterial products: hand cleaners that don't require water, body washes and soaps in colorful bottles beckoning consumers seeking extra protection from germs. But do these antibacterial products offer better coverage than plain old soap and water? And do they carry potential public health risks?

Last week an advisory committee of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates antibacterial and antiseptic cleansers as nonprescription drugs, found they are no more effective at preventing infections than ordinary soap and water, based on a review of studies. The 12-member group heard testimony about the theoretical risks posed by triclosan, an ingredient in many non-alcohol-based cleansers, which FDA officials say may accumulate in groundwater. Some scientists say they fear that overuse of triclosan and another germ-killer could spawn the development of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.

Such concerns, the advisory panel said, do not apply to alcohol-based hand sanitizers because they evaporate. Alcohol-based cleansers, which have been installed in many hospitals and day care centers, have proven useful in places where there is no easy access to water, the committee said.

The Rebuttal The Soap and Detergent Association, an industry group that represents manufacturers of antibacterial products, said in a statement that "more than 30 years of research" has proven these products are safe and effective in reducing disease-causing bacteria. Any link with increased bacterial resistance is speculative, said spokesman Brian Sansoni.

The Future The advisory panel did not recommend that the FDA take specific action, but endorsed further study of the potential risks and benefits of home antiseptics. The group also recommended that the FDA require manufacturers to provide data demonstrating the effectiveness of their products.

Tufts University microbiologist Stuart B. Levy, founder of the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics, testified before the committee. He said consumers should avoid the use of antiseptic soaps and instead wash their hands with regular soap and water. If soap and water is not available, an alcohol-based product is acceptable, Levy said.

-- Sandra G. Boodman

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