Germs and the Rise of Antibacterial Products

Cleaning safely for your health and the environment's.

| September/October 1999

Headline-making deadly bacteria such as E. coli, salmonella, and staphylococcus have lately been putting the fear of dirt in consumers’ hearts. Over the past few years, commercial soap-makers have met this fear with a host of antibacterial products that range from soaps and detergents to gels and lotions. Some children’s toys and a number of kitchen items, including cutting boards and sponges, have been impregnated with an antibacterial agent. There is even antibacterial toothpaste on the market.

But are antibacterial products—which generally fetch a premium price—actually effective? Are the antibacterial agents themselves safe? And perhaps most im­portantly, do these products promote the proliferation of drug-resistant bacteria? Experts disagree on these basic questions.

What Makes a Product Antibacterial?

Adding an agent designed to kill or reduce the growth of bacteria allows a manufacturer to label a product “antibacterial.” These agents are actually antibiotics, and are sometimes referred to as disinfectants or antiseptics. The active ingredient in most antibacterial soaps is triclosan, in use for over thirty years. When used in soaps, triclosan is considered an over-the-counter drug by the Food and Drug Administration. Other antibacterial agents added to consumer products include triclocarbon and benalkonium chloride. All these compounds were originally used in hospital-grade soaps and surgical clothes to inhibit the spread of infections.

Microban, a pesticide registered with the EPA, incorporates triclosan to protect plastic from bacterial growth. Microban has been added to some Hasbro toys and in 3M O-Cel-O sponges. In April 1997, however, the EPA ruled that Microban had not been approved or registered to protect public health; therefore neither company can claim that Microban-treated products kill harmful germs.

Benefits of Antibacterial Products

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