The Federal Trade Commission has begun cracking down on germ-fighting claims now being made for a growing number of antibacterial products, such as soaps, hand lotions, cosmetics, cotton swabs, diapers--even cat litter.

This week, the agency announced it had reached a settlement involving the "germ protection" claims of Vaseline Intensive Care antibacterial hand lotion. The ads claimed that the lotion "stops germs for hours" and guards hands "against dryness and against germs."

Agency officials indicated that the settlement may be the first of several involving antibacterial products. "We're looking at other claims," said Jodie Bernstein, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.

"The message we hope to send to consumers is 'Don't think that these products give you any better protection than washing your hands with soap and hot water,' " Bernstein said.

In the settlement, the FTC said Vaseline lacked scientific data to make its claims and consequently deceived consumers into thinking they would be shielded from disease-causing germs if they used the lotion. Unilever Home & Personal Care USA, the maker of Vaseline Intensive Care, has agreed to stop making claims that any of its antibacterial products is as effective in germ prevention as washing alone.

What began as a small trend in hand soaps in 1980s with the introduction of antibacterial Liquid Dial has exploded into a major marketing phenomenon in the 1990s. Since 1992, more than 700 antibacterial products have been introduced on the market, not just soaps, cosmetics and household cleansers but also toothpastes, baby wipes and ballpoint pens.

In the past the FTC had not taken any action on these products' claims, deferring to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration.

The EPA has been particularly aggressive against such antibacterial products as toys, pens and toothbrushes. It has fined several companies, saying the antibacterial ingredient contained in these products only preserves the product itself from deterioration.

Bernstein said the Vaseline settlement does not represent a change in policy, "just more intense attention to those claims" as they've proliferated.

A Unilever spokesman said the ads at issue were old, running for only four months in 1997. "We have not been running them since and have no intention of running them," the spokesman said.

An FTC lawyer said the ads were particularly troubling because they were for a hand lotion claiming "to sanitize like a soap. When consumers see that, they think their hands are protected without having to wash; they think the protection will last for hours--but if they touched a doorknob they'd be immediately reinfected."

The FTC complaint also noted that the lotion's active ingredient was triclosan, which is used in many antibacterial products. Although the Vaseline ads suggest that the lotion was effective against disease-causing germs such as cold and flu viruses, the FTC said triclosan has not been proven effective against viruses.