Antibacterial soaps and the culture of 'clean'

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?

Kiichiro Sate/AP
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.

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.

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."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.