Study: Antibacterials provide little protection

MARCH 2–NEW YORK–The antibacterial soaps, laundry detergents and other household cleaning products that have become increasingly popular in recent years apparently offer little protection against the most common germs, the first major test in people’s homes has found.

In a study involving 238 Manhattan families, those who used only antibacterial cleaners for about a year were just as likely to get fevers, sniffles, sore throats, coughs, rashes and stomach problems as those who used standard cleaners.

“This study certainly indicates that antibacterial soaps may not be necessary and may not be offering any value,” Elaine L. Larson, associate dean for research at the Columbia University School of Nursing, who led the study, told The Washington Post. “The very small amount of antibacterial ingredients in these soaps don’t seem to be doing much.”

Public concern about germs has increased in recent years with highly publicized cases of food poisoning from E. coli, “flesh-eating” bacteria and the emergence of new diseases such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). More than two-thirds of liquid soaps found on the shelves of U.S. stores now contain antibacterial agents, making it a $16 billion-a-year industry.

The Soap and Detergent and The Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance associations, however, refute the study, saying Antibacterial cleaning and personal care products do what they say they do: they kill harmful bacteria.

Research on antibacterial products featured in the March 2004 Annals of Internal Medicine focused on diseases caused by viruses, not bacteria, according to a statement from both agencies.

The research findings in this particular study are not surprising, as none of the antibacterial products tested were designed, formulated or claimed to be effective against viruses.

Depending on their active ingredient(s) and specific formulation, antibacterial personal cleansing products can be effective against bacteria that can cause odor, skin infections, food poisoning, intestinal illnesses and other commonly transmitted diseases. These products are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

Household disinfectants and antibacterial household cleaning products depending on their active ingredients, specific formulation, and use instructions are designed to kill a wide variety of microorganisms that can live on inanimate surfaces, such as bacteria like Salmonella and E. coli, which cause intestinal illness, and Staphylococcus, which causes skin infections.

In some cases, disinfectant products and certain antibacterial products may be formulated to have efficacy against fungi and viruses. Some examples include the fungus that causes athlete’s foot; viruses such as Herpes simplex; Rhinovirus, which is the leading cause of the common cold, and Rotavirus, the major cause of diarrhea in young children. To determine the product that is right for the job, read the label.


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