Sterilizing everything is actually bad

There's a great post at the Sciam guest blog describing the science of antimicrobial cleaners, and it doesn't look promising:

perhaps the most comprehensive study of the effectiveness of antibiotic and non-antibiotic soaps in the U.S., led by Elaine Larson at Columbia University (with Aiello as a coauthor), found that while for healthy hand washers there was no difference between the effects of the two, for chronically sick patients (those with asthma and diabetes, for example) antibiotic soaps were actually associated with increases in the frequencies of fevers, runny noses and coughs. In other words, antibiotic soaps appeared to have made those patients sicker. Let me say that again: Most people who use antibiotic soap are no healthier than those who use normal soap. AND those individuals who are chronically sick and use antibiotic soap appear to get SICKER.

That's because your normal flora - the good microbes that are on every surface all the time - are also killed when indiscriminate antimicrobials are slathered all over your body/kitchen counter. Soap alone usually won't dislodge them, but that's a GOOD thing. They hold down the fort and occupy niches that the nasties want to get a hold of.

It's a thoughtful and entertaining piece, go read the whole thing.

More like this

Good Germs, Bad Germs by Jessica Snyder Sachs deals with this issue - the whole 'hygiene hypothesis'; though some of the stuff she touches upon makes me think "Erm, woo?" it's a really good read.

Yup, regular hygiene in the household makes sense. I don't get the appearance of antibiotic hand wash, dish wash, clothes wash for household use. I'd expect an increase of more aggressive/resistant bacteria in the household when those are used. I don't see how they'll end up being properly used.

There was some reason I learned how to properly use (time, technique) hand disinfectant during my hospital time in the military.

There are places and times when really anally retentive sterilisation procedures are appropriate (for example homebrewing; or on a more serious note when visiting a relative with resistant staph infections, or when you yourself have caught something, or when preparing food for high-risk individuals). But, generally, the widespread use of disinfectants is scary.

By stripey_cat (not verified) on 08 Jul 2011 #permalink

@ stripy_cat - Absolutely. Our understanding of microbes and our ability to get rid of them (in surgery or using antibiotics) has been one of the greatest advances in medicine and public health ever. We've just started to take it too far.

Having come from Africa where little is done in regards to hygiene, while this does cause some problems people are generally much stronger in their natural defence towards most "bad" microbes . I now live in the UK and i can believe how often people are getting sick and how low their tolerance is . I some areas these advances have benefited us, I agree with Kevin - it has been taken way to far