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Germ-killing Soaps Do Not Improve Health

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LAKEWOOD, Ohio, Mar 01, 2004 (United Press International via COMTEX) -- New research likely to burst some bubbles finds washing hands with antibacterial soap and using antibacterial products for general household cleaning do not guarantee healthier households.

Families using so-called antibacterial products suffer just as many runny noses, sore throats and 24-hour diarrhea attacks as they would using ordinary soap and cleaning aids, according to the research that studied both types of products.

This lack of benefit is evident even if families faithfully use soap products that claim to fight germs. The reason is simple: Most common illnesses are caused by viral -- not bacterial -- infections.

There was some good news from the soap study, however. The researchers from Columbia University in New York City reported cleanliness does improve health. Whether families used antibacterial products or ordinary soap, both were healthier than expected, said lead researcher, Dr. Elaine Larson.

"I guess it's pretty obvious that if you have a study about hygiene, hygiene is likely to improve," she told United Press International.

Good hygiene meant lower-than-expected illnesses for all the families in the study, as reported in the March issue of Annals of Internal Medicine.

The researchers recruited 238 families living in Upper Manhattan in New York for the study. Half the families were given antibacterial soap and household cleaning products, while the other half received soap and cleaning products that did not contain the bacteria-fighting compounds.

All products were supplied by Proctor & Gamble and all were packaged in special containers so users were unaware if the products were antibacterial.

Most of the families were Hispanic and about half of the family members were age 19 or younger.

After 48 weeks of use, researchers detected no differences in the rate of infectious disease symptoms reported by the households, said Larson, associate dean for research at Columbia's School of Nursing. "I think the public has always sort of assumed that antibacterial meant there is a health benefit and if they use (antibacterial soap) more often there would be less risk (of infection)."

Larson noted, however, the belief has never been tested in the home, nor in studies that were not funded by the soap industry. Her study was funded by the National Institute for Nursing Research at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

"What we did find in this study was that everybody did better," she said. In addition to monitoring the households with weekly phone calls and monthly home visits, "we cultured the hands every three months for bacteria. Everybody in the study reduced bacteria counts by half. Everyone was much cleaner."

Even with cleaner hands, however, about a third of families had at least one sick member -- usually respiratory illness, although fever, vomiting and diarrhea likewise were common -- each month, irrespective of the type of soap product used.

"Of course most of these illnesses are viral, so antibacterial products would have no effect," she said.

Soap is big business: Each year, Americans spend about $15 billion on cleaning products as well as detergents. They spend another $1 billion to $2 billion on soaps, according to Brian Sansoni, spokesman for the Soap and Detergent Association and the Cosmetic, Toiletry & Fragrance Association.

Sansoni said there are no hard figures on the yearly price tag for antibacterial products, but he noted it is likely to be in "the billions rather than millions."

With that much at stake, Sansoni told UPI his group was concerned Larson's study might leave consumers with the "wrong message."

He defended the use of antibacterial products, noting they are effective against bacteria that "cause odor, skin infections, food poisoning, intestinal illnesses and other commonly transmitted diseases." He said all products are designed to attack specific bacteria and he urged consumers to "read the label" to determine what organisms the product will kill.

Sansoni also said some household products do contain ingredients that attack viruses such as Herpes simplex, rhinovirus -- a common cause of colds -- and rotavirus, a frequent cause of diarrhea in young children. Again, he advised consumers to read the label to make sure they are using a product designed to offer viral protection.

Sansoni said other studies have demonstrated a health benefit associated with the use of the antibacterial products, but a UPI analysis of studies cited by Sansoni found most investigations involved the use of antibacterial products in hospitals or other institutions.

The studies of antibacterial products in the home examined the efficacy among persons with skin disorders such as acne or eczema. A 1988 study, however, reported fewer respiratory infections in households where mothers dipped their fingers in a solution of 2 percent aqueous iodine before touching their children.

Dr. J. Todd Weber, assistant to the director the National Center for Infectious Diseases, at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, praised the soap study and told UPI its results are reassuring.

"One can be confident that by using plain soap you are still getting clean." Weber, along with Dr. James Hughes, also of the CDC, wrote in an editorial published along with the Larson study.

The big take-home message from the soap study, Weber said, is people concerned about spreading germs have a number of proven options that work.

"The importance of at-home respiratory hygiene remains undiminished," he said. "If you are sneezing and coughing, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue. Then dispose of the tissue in a way that other people aren't touching it. Wash your hands frequently. Dry hands with disposable towels and throw them away after drying."

Larson added people who worry about germs on their hands should consider using alcohol wipes.

"These work very well and they are disposable," she said.


Peggy Peck covers medicine and health for UPI Science News. E-mail

Copyright 2004 by United Press International.

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