I recently wrote a story for Governing on the rise of drug-resistant diseases, which will be published in the May issue. It's starting to be a huge public health crisis, as more and more bacteria develop a resistance to treatments that used to kill them.
Anyway, I was discussing this phenomenon, also called "antimicrobial resistance," with a friend over the weekend (what can I say? I have nerdy friends).
He asked a question that hadn't occurred to me while I was working on the story -- has the rise in popularity of antibacterial soaps helped fuel the increase in these stronger bugs?
It's an excellent question: Health officials attribute much of the increase to the overprescription of antibiotics, so it would make a lot of sense if antibacterial cleaners were also at fault.
Turns out, the jury's out. The soap and detergent industries, unsurprisingly, say that everything's fine, case closed:
"[R]ecent scientific studies have found no link between the real-world use of antibacterial products and bacterial resistance."
Well, that's sort of true. Studies like this one and this one have not found any evidence that antibacterial hand soaps or household cleaning agents contribute significantly to antimicrobial resistance.
But those studies also note that more research needs to be done. Sure, these superbugs might not develop over the 1-year course of the study. But long-term use of antibacterials could be a cause for concern, researchers say.
At any rate, the one thing everyone seems to agree on (except for the soapmakers, I guess): Antibacterial soaps do no more good than regular soap and water. So say epidemiologists, so says the FDA, the CDC and the Canadian Health Department.
So don't use antibacterial soaps. I'm definitely going to quit buying them.
For the final word on the subject, let's turn to Bill Nye (the freaking Science Guy), answering a question about whether you should use antibacterial products:
No. Well, mostly no. Almost always no. Most of us should avoid antibacterial products. People in health care may be the only exception.