Are antibacterial household products breeding superbacteria? Or are we?

Concerns about antibacterial household products have been voiced over at Scientific American as the number and variety of antibacterial products continues to expand in the marketplace.

Body soaps, household cleaners, sponges, even mattresses and lip glosses are now packing bacteria-killing ingredients, and scientists question what place, if any, these chemicals have in the daily routines of healthy people.

Unlike these traditional cleaners, antibacterial products leave surface residues, creating conditions that may foster the development of resistant bacteria …

The scientists cite the old adage “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”; the bacteria left behind to reproduce are the ones with the greatest resistance. So you produce “stronger” bacteria that are not only resist the antibacterials but related antibiotics as well.

As bacteria develop a tolerance for these compounds there is potential for also developing a tolerance for certain antibiotics. This phenomenon, called cross-resistance, has already been demonstrated in several laboratory studies using triclosan, one of the most common chemicals found in antibacterial hand cleaners, dishwashing liquids and other wash products.

These products aren’t recommended by medical professionals, other than for people with reduced immune system capacity, nursing homes, etc. And studies indicate that antibacterial soaps don’t prevent disease any better than regular soap.

So why are antibacterial products on the rise? How did we get here? The trend started back in the the 1990’s in the bathroom with antibacterial cleaners. In 2000, respected organizations like the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association warned consumers of the perils of antibacterial products and advised the FDA to “closely monitor and possibly regulate the home use of antimicrobials“.

Of course, there are dissenting views. The Soap and Detergent Association has this to say on the matter:

Q. Do you believe that the expanding use of antibacterial ingredients in consumer hand and body wash products could lead to “superbugs” that are resistant to antibiotic drugs?

A. No. In the more than 30 years that antibacterial wash products have been used by consumers and medical professionals, we have not seen any evidence that their use contributes to antibiotic resistance. If there were a link between antibacterial use and antibiotic resistance, experts believe it would have been seen by now in settings, such as hospitals, where antibacterial products are used extensively to stop the spread of bacteria and antibiotic resistance is closely monitored. In fact, two independent hospital infection control researchers recently presented studies to the FDA showing that triclosan-based wash products controlled and reversed outbreaks of resistant bacteria infections. .

- SDA FAQ: Some FAQs About Bacterial Resistance From Antibacterial Wash Products

So what happened? Did no one listen? Are we all mindless pawns of the Soap and Detergent Association? I think not.

Unfortunately the American consumer is at war with all bacteria. According to the Soap and Detergent Association (too bad its acronym couldn’t spell SUD), more than three-quarters of liquid soap and more than a quarter of bar soaps on supermarket shelves contain triclosan, an antibiotic that kills most bacteria, both good and bad.
- livescience.com’s Bad Medicine

It would be easy to blame the marketing machine of the soap and detergent industry. But 75% of the liquid soap on the market is a lot of soap. If all the manufacturers ditched the antibacterials, we’d still be be buying just as much soap because we’d still need to wash our hands so demand wouldn’t fall. That’s not it.

Controversial as it may be, I believe that consumers like things the way they are. We look at the world and draw our own conclusions. If antimicrobials are good for hospitals, they must be good for us. I don’t need advertising to want an antibacterial product. The proliferation of antibacterial products is an evolution, from consumers selecting antibacterial products over non-antibacterial products when given the choice over time, time and time again. All the industry did was pay attention and give us more of what we wanted.

I believe the proliferation of the antibacterial products is also tied in with the psychology of cleaning – people actually feel better about themselves when they have a clean house. Some people really need that feeling but using good old-fashioned bleach is a pretty harsh way to get it!

Finally, antibacterial products are a “security blanket” of sorts, real or imagined. They protect our possessions (wet mattress anyone?), let us be lazy (you can wash those dishes later, much later) and enable our bad habits (you can chew on that pencil without fear now that it’s antibacterial).

I don’t buy a lot of antibacterial products. I’ve studied microbiology and molecular genetics. I’ve studied food hygiene. I’ve swabbed & tested stuff for a living. I should know better. But when it comes to my antibacterial bathroom and kitchen cleaners? To quote Charlton Heston, “from my cold dead hands“.

Probably because I’ve swabbed stuff for a living.

The last word:

In general, however, good, long-term hygiene means using regular soaps rather than new, antibacterial ones, experts say. “The main way to keep from getting sick,” Gustafson says, “is to wash your hands three times a day and don’t touch mucous membranes.”

Not that we’ll listen. Because it’s not just about “getting sick” anymore.

How I got on this subject: Antibacterial Cleaners Do More Harm Than Good on treehugger.com

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