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Antibacterial Products: Can You Be Too Clean?

IMAGE In a world full of runny noses and hacking coughs, products with labels like "antibacterial" and "antimicrobial" regularly dispense hopes of germ and illness-free lives to their users. But, as the variety of germ-fighting products continues to rise, medical experts are raising concern over their potential long-term harms.

Waging a War on Germs

Getting sick often comes with taking time off from life's responsibilities and allowing yourself time to recover. Because this is inconvenient, many of us may want to fight back by using antibacterial products to get rid of infection causing bacteria. However, this can have damaging long-term effects.

Widespread use of these products may cause bacteria to mutate and develop a resistance to the cleaning agents. This could make these agents less effective in places where it is very important that they do work, such as hospitals and healthcare facilities where sick people need to be protected. Bacterial resistance to these products could also results in a cross-resistance to antibiotics that are used to treat people with infections.

Another important concept to understand is not all bacteria are harmful. Some bacteria help us stay healthy by keeping disease-causing bacteria under control. Antibacterial agents are not created to recognize the difference and kill both good and bad bacteria.

Hygiene Over Hype

Antibacterial products have grown increasingly popular since they were first introduced—and heavily marketed—in the 1990s. It's important to read the labels and look for the wording "antibacterial," "antimicrobial," or "antiseptic". Everyday household products which may contain these agents include:

  • Soaps
  • Disinfectants, surface cleaners, and window cleaning solutions
  • Lotions
  • Toothpaste and mouthwash
  • Garbage bags

If you and your family are healthy, you are probably better off not using antibacterial products. However, these products may be appropriate if you have a medical reason and your doctor has told you to use them.

When it comes to avoiding disease-causing germs, proper hygiene means more than any product label. To decrease your chances of getting common infections, follow these basic steps:

  • Wash your hands—Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water. Teach children to do this often, especially before eating, after going to the bathroom, and after school.
  • Safely prepare food—Besides cooking meats completely and storing food appropriately, make sure the surfaces on which they are prepared are cleaned.
  • Keep your germs off of others—If you are sick, you should cover your mouths and nose when coughing and sneezing. Follow-up with proper hand-washing.

  • National Center for Infectious Diseases


  • National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases


  • Health Canada


  • Healthy U


  • Antibacterial cleaning products. Better Health Channel website. Available at: http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Antibacterial%5Fcleaning%5Fproducts?open. Updated September 2011. Accessed July 6, 2012.

  • Antibacterials in household products. Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics. Tufts University website. Available at: http://www.tufts.edu/med/apua/consumers/personal%5Fhome%5F5%5F3590195869.pdfPublished September 2010. Accessed July 11, 2011

  • Levy S. Antibacterial household products: cause for concern. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Emerging Infectious Disease. Available at: http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/7/7/01-7705%5Farticle.htm. Published June 2001. Accessed June 18, 2012.