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Updated 10:00 AM October 31, 2005




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Antibacterial soaps no better at cleaning

Germophobic Americans have antibacterial soaps in their bathrooms and kitchens; they carry hand-sanitizing gels and wipes when they're away from home; and grocery stores have gotten into the act, offering wipes for cart handles.

Allison Aiello, assistant professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health (SPH), says the use of antibacterial cleaning products inadvertently might lead to the development of superbugs—bacteria resistant to the arsenal of cleansers and soaps.

The concern, she explains, is the ingredient triclosan, which most consumer antibacterial liquid soaps contain. It changes the ecological balance on hands by killing some, but not all, bacteria. In addition laboratory tests have shown use of antibacterials can lead to cross-resistance with oral antibiotics used to treat some infections, she says.

Aiello appeared before the Food and Drug Administration Non-prescription Drugs Advisory Committee Oct. 20 to discuss the health benefits and risks of antibacterial soaps.

She told the committee any kind of soap, with or without antibacterial ingredients, can help remove bugs from hands. She feels it is not necessary to use antibacterial soaps because research shows those products are not any more effective than plain soap in warding off common infections found in the household setting.

Aiello, who is part of the SPH Center for Social Epidemiology and Population Health, had an article on the topic published in the October issue of the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hers is the first randomized study in the United States to examine antibacterial use in the home setting to look for increased antibiotic resistance.

In the article, Aiello studied about 200 households and found use of hand soap containing the antibacterial agent triclosan was not associated with increased antibiotic resistance a year later.

Co-authors on the October article are Bonnie Marshall and Stuart Levy of Tufts University and Phyllis Della-Latta, Susan Lin and Elaine Larson of Columbia University.

Aiello, who received support for her research from the Robert Wood Johnson Health & Society Scholars Program, says further study is needed.

She notes one year is not long enough to see a change in antibiotic resistance at the population level, so she is planning a long-term surveillance of bacteria in the community setting for changes in levels of resistance to triclosan.

Aiello says she hopes the FDA will continue to monitor potential risks associated with antibacterial soaps, and possibly regulate their use as an over-the-counter medication.

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