Soap Opera

I've never worried all that much about germs, but I spent all day worrying about them yesterday.  In the indelicate jargon of this business, we "crashed" a story about antibacterial soaps. The Food and Drug Adminstration is asking whether they do much good.

When you're in crash mode, it's the kind of day on which you inhale lunch, if you get it at all, and skip bathroom trips.  One producer, Amy Thomas, was at an FDA hearing in Maryland, doing interviews; a second, Alice Maggin was here in New York with me, finding pictures and helping me structure the story. Camera crews, graphic artists, a very capable video editor, Alex Aleksic -- a cast of thousands.

And in the midst of it, one nagging question: Just what is it we need to tell people?

Here's what seems to be the prevailing wisdom on antibacterial soap. If you work for a home-products company, you may disagree, in which case you'll have a bone to pick with the FDA's non-prescription advisory committee.

Several studies have now shown that families who used antibacterial soap did not have lower rates of common ailments (colds, coughs, fever, etc.) than those who used regular soap. The antibacterial soaps didn't seem to do any harm, but they are often more expensive. 

Keep in mind that colds, flu, etc., are typically caused by viruses, not bacteria, and the difference matters.  Antibacterial is not antiviral. 

There are some activists who say overuse of antibacterials could lead to stronger bugs, resistant to treatment, but there's been no proof that's actually happening. 

Anti-bacterial products do have a clear use in hospitals and other places where cleanliness is a clear priority. 

As for the rest of us, the bottom line seems to be that your mom was right -- wash your hands.  Thoroughly.  With hot water.  And lots of lather.  What matters is getting those bugs off your skin, whether or not you kill them.  Most of the doctors we reached said the type of soap you use doesn't much matter.

-- Ned

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