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Modern Parenthood

Antibacterial soaps and the culture of 'clean' (+video)

Antibacterial soaps: Study finds no evidence that antibacterial soaps are more effective than good old soap and water. Are we trying to make our kids too clean?

By / December 17, 2013

The Food and Drug Administration says there is no evidence that antibacterial chemicals used in liquid soaps and washes help prevent the spread of germs, and there is some evidence they may pose health risks.

Kiichiro Sate/AP

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A recent press release by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suggests that there is no evidence that antibacterial soaps are more effective at preventing illness than good old plain soap and water. Moreover, the FDA adds that there may actually be health risks associated with these soaps, including hormonal effects and the danger of making harmful bacteria more resistant to treatment.

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Contributing blogger

James Norton got his professional start at the Monitor as an online news producer, before moving over to edit international news during the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Since leaving the Monitor in 2004, he has worked as a radio producer, author, and food blogger. 

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Antibacterial soap might not be as helpful as you might think, at least, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

The FDA announcement touches on one of the least understand and most exciting scientific frontiers available to us: our own bodies' microbiome, a collection of tiny living things including plenty of bacteria. The microscopic critters that fill our guts, cover our skin, and otherwise play vital symbiotic roles in our day-to-day lives are barely understood – and so it may make sense that covering ourselves in bacteria-killing soap may have some unintended consequences.

All of this sounds a bit abstract, but the rubber hits the road when it comes to the way we raise our kids. Which is to say: How clean do we want them? To what extent is slightly dirty acceptable, and to what extent do we use a combination of scrubbing, disinfecting, and other methods to keep them spotless and shiny?

The battle to clean (or resist the urge to clean) is a good microcosm for parenting in general – you're balancing health, social acceptance, and the immediate comfort of your kids, trying to strike a balance between a miserable, immaculately scrubbed kid who glistens, thanks to creams and lotions, and Pigpen from "Peanuts."

The nice thing about the FDA announcement – beyond its call for evidence to support a commercial claim, which is always nice – is that it provides an important corrective to the current mainstream norm, which is a house sanitized, scented, and scrubbed within an inch of its life in pursuit of some sort of immaculately sterile nirvana of "clean."

Ultimately, it comes down to the parents to figure out the balance, but the FDA's announcement is a nice reality check and a reminder: there is, in fact, such a thing as "too clean."

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