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Should You Wash With Antibacterial Soaps?
Are antibacterial soaps worthwhile?
Answer (Published 2/16/2006)

No, they're not. I've never thought that these products were necessary, and I don't use them myself. The only reason to use antibacterial soaps and cleansing products is to get rid of germs that cause infections. Obviously, they're needed in nursing homes, hospitals, and other healthcare settings where there is a high risk of spreading infection from person to person. But there's no proof that the antibacterial soaps and washes marketed for home use serve any useful purpose.

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Recently an advisory panel reporting to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration concluded that plain old soap and water work just as well to prevent the spread of germs as pricier antibacterial products and suggested that the FDA study the risks and benefits of the antibacterials. The upshot could be a required change in product labeling or new restrictions on marketing claims.

There's also concern, but scant evidence, that antibacterial products could foster the development of resistant strains of bacteria. The Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics (APUA) reports that some of these products leave behind bacteria that are resistant to several antibiotics including tetracycline, ampicillin, chloramphenicol and ciprofloxacin.

APUA also reports that triclosan, one of the germicidal agents used in antibacterial products, has been found in surface waters, sewage treatment plants, the bile of fish, and breast milk. We don't yet know what this means or whether it will prove to be harmful.

In addition, some doctors have voiced concern that antibacterial products may weaken resistance to disease in children. This notion stems from the controversial "hygiene hypothesis" that holds that children who grow up in crowded and dirtier environments are less likely to develop asthma, allergies and other ailments than youngsters raised in cleaner, more protected environments. The idea is that the developing immune systems of less privileged kids are exposed to lots of germs from an early age and so become stronger and more protective of health. The hygiene hypothesis is an intriguing theory that remains to be proved, but it makes sense to me.

Instead of relying on products that haven't been proven to work, I recommend the following measures to clean your kitchen, the place that the most bacteria are found (even more so than the bathroom). The bugs lurk in sponges, dishrags, cutting boards and counters:

  • To clean sponges and dishrags, run them through the dishwasher or microwave them regularly. Sterilize dry cellulose sponges and dry cotton dishrags for 30 seconds in the microwave and zap wet sponges for one minute and wet dishrags for three minutes.
  • Replace sponges every few weeks.
  • Wash plastic cutting boards with a diluted solution of chlorine bleach (one tablespoon in a cup of water).
  • Clean wooden cutting boards with soap, water and vigorous scrubbing. Better still, avoid wooden cutting boards.
  • To keep kitchen counters germ-free, scrub off any caked grime and then disinfect with the bleach solution.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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