The Annals of Internal Medicine conducted a study titled: "Effect of Antibacterial Home Cleaning and Handwashing Products on Infectious Disease Symptoms."
They picked 238 New York households (1178 persons) that included at least one preschool-age child. The households were randomly divided into two groups: One used non-antibacterial products and the other used antibacterial products for general cleaning, laundry, and handwashing.
All products were commercially available, but the packaging was blinded so the study participants wouldn't know which products they were using and the products were provided free to the participants. Only the Annals of Internal Medicine knew which households were using which products.
Hygiene practices and infectious disease symptoms were monitored by weekly telephone calls, monthly home visits, and quarterly interviews for 48 weeks.
The results of this study were that the tested antibacterial products did not reduce the risk for symptoms of viral infectious diseases in households that included essentially healthy persons. There were just as many instances of vomiting, diarrhea, fever, sore throat, cough, runny nose and pinkeye among the antibacterial users.
So, what is going on here?
A microbiologist Stuart Levy of Tufts University School of Medicine and president of the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics (APUA) has done an extensive research on this topic. Levy's research has led him to question why "antibacterial ingredients, once successfully used to prevent transmission of disease-causing microorganisms among patients, particularly in hospitals . . . are now being added to products used in healthy households . . . even though an added health benefit has not been demonstrated."
Levy and other scientists don't dispute that chemicals added in the antibacterial products can kill bacteria, they argue that there's no evidence they do any good. "No study has shown that," Levy says. What's more, many illnesses such as flu and the common cold, which prompt people to wipe down telephone handsets and doorknobs, are caused not by bacteria, but by viruses -- and antibacterial products can't slow a virus at all.
Along these lines, are then antibacterial products in healthy households beneficial at all or do they do more harm than good?
While the arguments continue over whether antibacterial soap does any good, there's a second concern over whether it may actually do harm.
"Evidence is accumulating that chemicals used in antimicrobial soaps may be causing bacteria to become more resistant to commonly used antibiotics" - said Shmuel Shoham, an infectious disease specialist at Washington Hospital Center.
That's happening, Levy also stated, despite several "potential negative consequences" of these products, including weakening the immune system, which could lead to a greater chance of allergies in children, and their possible link to the emergence of antibiotic resistance -- the very problem that is making some diseases, such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, so difficult to treat.
In his book "The Antibiotic Paradox," Levy explains that the antibacterial products leave residues on the surfaces where they are used. The active ingredients linger and continue to kill the bacteria, but not effectively or randomly. The naturally stronger bacteria that survived the initial assault develop new defense mechanisms against the chemicals. This selection process gives rise to a new generation that is resistant to the offending compounds.
Certain bacteria also develop "cross-resistance" - transferring their new and improved defenses to bacteria fighting other types of antibiotics.
Beyond the drug-resistance worries, some scientists are even concerned that antibacterial soap is an indiscriminate killer.
Some bacteria are bad for us, but some are good. The antibacterials kill both. And when the good bacteria are gone, there's more room for the bad bacteria to grow, raising our risk of becoming sick.
A number of studies have linked the development of allergies, asthma and skin problems in children to their having been raised in environments that are too sterile. "You need a little dirt," Levy says, "to train your immune system correctly."
If you are worried about MRSA, E. coli, SARS, influenza or simply the common cold, you already know that you should wash your hands - thoroughly - and not just get them wet and wipe them.
Regular soap and water will do.