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The dirty secrets of antibacterial soap

Antibacterial soap is great stuff — if you’re talking about just plain old regular soap. Because all soap combats bacteria. It doesn’t need germ-killing chemicals added to do that. The difference is that regular soap doesn’t act so much to “kill” bacteria as it binds to it, removing it from our hands or whatever we’re washing.

But Americans have been sold in recent years on these so-called antibacterial soaps, despite the lack of evidence that they do anything to keep people healthier than plain soap, and might in fact have the opposite effect. Doctors and health officials have been warning about this for years, and some people have gotten the message, but the powers of advertising have been strong enough to keep many consumers buying these dubious products. Now the Food and Drug Administration is planning to do something about it — and for the nation’s health, it’s about time.

To start with, antibacterial soaps don’t have any effect on the bugs that most often make us sick: colds and flu, which are caused by viruses, not bacteria. In addition, to be effective, washing with antibacterial soap is supposed to take place for at least two minutes. How many people out there even know that, much less practice it? Watching most people’s wash-up habits, you don’t see many who even do the 20-second soaping (the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday”) recommended for plain soap to do its job.

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None of this would be of any concern — who cares which product you choose to kill your germs; if you want to spend more on a dubious product, that’s your business — if it weren’t for evidence that the germ-killing substances in the antibacterial soaps are contributing to resistant bacteria. There’s also some indication that at least one of the most common bacteria-killing compounds alters the way hormones work. So far, the evidence is based on animal studies, which doesn’t necessarily mean the same is true for humans. But it’s certainly reason for concern.

The FDA is demanding that the makers of these soaps provide evidence that their products work better than generic soap at preventing disease, or pull them off the market. It’s more than a matter of consumer choice because we all pay, with our money and our health, for the sizable cost of resistant bacteria.

Last week, the FDA moved to reduce the use of antibiotics in livestock operations, an important step because 80% of all antibiotics in this country are used on food animals. And that’s mostly to make the animals grow faster or prevent disease in crowded, unsanitary feeding operations, not to treat animals that are actually sick.

The overdue measure on antibacterial soap makes sense as another step to tackle rampant and unnecessary use of a product that helps really nasty supergerms develop. (Hand sanitizers, which use alcohol to kill germs, are a different matter altogether; they're more effective because they’re a leave-on product.)

Now if we could do something about the physicians who still prescribe antibiotics for colds, which they are not effective in combating, and for any teen who gets a smattering of acne.

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