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Rethinking antibacterial soap

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  December 19, 2013 08:04 AM

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soap.jpgWhen it comes to staying healthy, it turns out that washing with plain old soap is a better idea than washing with antibacterial soap.

This sounds counterintuitive. After all, bacteria are germs, and we want to get rid of germs--wouldn't something "antibacterial" be a good idea?

Not so much, says the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Apparently studies show that antibacterial soaps don't prevent illness any better than regular soap. And (this part is scary), some of the chemicals in antibacterial soaps, like triclosan and triclocarban, may cause health problems if used over years--they may have hormonal side effects.

There's also the pesky problem of microbial resistance. When we use a lot of chemicals specifically designed to kill bacteria, what can end up happening is that we kill off a lot of the weaker strains of bacteria--leaving the stronger strains to multiply and take over. Not only that, many of those "weaker" strains actually help keep us healthy--when we wipe them out, we mess all sorts of stuff up. 

I should say that it's different for hospitals, where being really germ-free is crucial. It's also different if you have a newborn, or if you or someone you live with has a problem with your immune system. In those situations, you want to use plenty of hand sanitizer--and talk to your doctor about what soaps you should use to wash. 

As with so many things in life, it's about finding the right balance between risk and benefit, both when it comes to bacteria (some are good, some aren't) and soap. The best way to keep anything in balance is to not go to one extreme or the other, and the same is true of washing. It's not a good idea to skip washing--washing your hands regularly is the best way to fight infection. But when doing that washing, it's not a good idea to use strong chemicals.

Plain old soap and water, like we used when we were kids, will do just fine.

Is there something you'd like me to write about? Leave me a message on my Facebook page--and "like" the page for links to all my MD Mama blogs as well as my blogs on Thriving and Huffington Post. 

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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