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Issue date: November 08, 2000

Can you be too clean? Doctors, scientists fear use of antibacterial soaps, cleaners could harm, not help in the long term Can you be too clean? Doctors, scientists fear use of antibacterial soaps, cleaners could harm, not help in the long term (November 08, 2000)

By Jennifer Desai

Almanac Correspondent

Cleanliness might be next to godliness for some, but when it comes to the microbial level, scientists are becoming increasingly skeptical.

The antibacterial soaps, hand creams and household products that are being marketed so aggressively to germ-phobic consumers, they say, might just be too effective for their -- and your -- own good.

About one hundred thousand billion bacteria live on the skin and within the gut of a human being -- 10 times more than all the tissue cells that make up an average 150-pound person. And while the good hygiene rules you learned in kindergarten keep the pathogenic ones from getting inside and making you sick, many scientists say using antibacterials to tamper with the bacterial balance around the home might just lead to stronger germs and worse illnesses down the road.

Dr. Stuart Levy, a professor at Tufts University School of Medicine and president of the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics (APUA), says antibacterial soaps and washes eventually make surviving bacteria stronger for the next battle, and should not be used unless you have an impaired immune system or are caring for someone who does.

And he's not alone. "Soap and water is enough to kill most bacteria you don't want, but people aren't meant to be surgically sterile," says Dr. Julie Parsonette of Stanford's adult infectious diseases department.

"You wouldn't want to kill every life form in the rainforest, and you wouldn't want to do that on your countertop, either," she says. "We're doing so well against infectious disease, at least compared (with) the past. Why bring the equivalent of an atom bomb into your house to kill bacteria?"

Scientists who caution against blanket use of antibacterial products fear that the more we use products designed to kill bacteria, the stronger the bacteria that survive will become -- eventually becoming entirely resistant.

Doctors who have used antibiotics such as penicillin have already discovered forms of strep, gonorrhea and meningitis that have developed resistance to drugs that used to work against those diseases, requiring them to prescribe stronger medicines to fight infections.

The same thing, they fear, may happen in the home, with use of antibacterial soaps and washes.

"I don't think we know what we're killing when we kill off harmless bacteria, or what we're causing to breed," Dr. Parsonette says. "I have a 2-year-old child, and I think playing in the dirt, getting exposed to the world, and developing antibodies is a good thing. We keep things clean, but people aren't meant to be sterile; that's unhealthy, too."


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