Antibacterial Hype – How Soap Can Make us Smarter About Healthcare

Last week, an article appeared on that called into question the ubiquitous antibacterial products that have invaded our lives, and it got me thinking about how unprepared people are when it comes to their own health.

According to the article, many antibacterial products contain a chemical known as “triclosan,” which has  now been linked to impaired muscle function in both animals and humans. This is just the latest in a long line of concerns over antibacterial products that contain triclosan, including that it can prevent the thyroid hormone from functioning properly, it easily penetrates the skin and enters the blood stream and it is now found throughout our environment, including in water and human breastmilk.

It immediately made me think back to my time at a plasma-derived products company. We worked closely with Swiss and German immunologists and microbiologists, many of whom were horrified by American’s increasing reliance on antibacterial products (outside of healthcare settings, that is). Their main concerns at the time were that we were:

  • Hampering our immune systems – our immune system kicks in and builds immunity only after we are exposed to a germ, and recent reports have reinforced that exposure to germs can help children ward off asthma and colitis
  • Contributing to the rise of superbugs – antibacterial products decimated good bacteria, as well as bad, and often left behind only the most aggressive, most virulent versions of germs, also known as “superbugs.” This is the reason that so many doctors are putting down their prescription pad when a child comes in with a cold rather than immediately sending the parent home with a script for an antibiotic

For me, there is a third concern: We’re paying for something we’re not really getting. While an antibacterial gel can be helpful when you can’t wash your hands, there is no evidence that using antibacterial soap containing triclosan is any better at killing bacteria and preventing illness than plain old soap.

Yet, despite all the evidence to the contrary, I meet a lot of people who are seemingly obsessed with cleanliness, wax poetic about their desire to rid their world of germs and go out of their way to buy only antibacterial products. In fact, Americans spend at least $1 billion each year on antibacterial soaps and products.

So what’s driven the obsession?

Really good marketing.

Germs, while sometimes bad and infrequently deadly, have become a larger-than-life monster in the minds of many. The notion was reinforced over and over again by coverage of children dying from food-borne pathogens and cross-contamination (neither of which can be stopped by antibacterial products). Companies capitalized on this fear and built a lucrative industry for themselves.

Antibacterial soap may seem like a minor issue, but I believe it is indicative of a larger problem we have in healthcare today. We are asking consumers to take a greater and greater role in their own healthcare, especially under the Accountable Care Act, but many are unprepared and make decisions based on fear rather than on fact.

To help prepare consumers for this task, it is imperative that all sectors – payors, physicians, pharmaceutical companies, and even employers, educators and communicators – help people know how to distinguish hyperbole from reality. They need guidance to know when to act based on what they believe is right for them and understand the cost implications of their actions. We also need to provide healthcare information in a clear, easy-to-digest manner that empowers consumers rather than distances them from the very system we want them to take control of.

After all, in the absence of knowledge, people will believe fear.

So, how are you helping others get smart about their health? What advice do you have for those around you who may be struggling to find what’s right for them?


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