Antibacterial Products: Can You Be Too Clean?

In a world full of runny noses and hacking coughs, some products dispense hopes of germ and illness-free lives. But, as the variety of germ-fighting products continues to rise, medical experts are raising concern over their potential long-term harms.

Waging a War on Germs

Getting sick often comes with taking time off from life's responsibilities and allowing yourself time to recover. Because this is inconvenient, many of us may want to fight back by using products that contain bacteria-killing agents such as triclosan and triclocarban. Many of these products are labeled as antibacterial, antiseptic, or antimicrobial. However, using these products may have damaging long-term effects, which may include impaired immune respose or a build-up of triclosans in the environment.

Widespread use of these products may cause bacteria to mutate and develop a resistance to other bacteria-killing agents. This could make these products less effective in places where it is important that they do work, such as hospitals and healthcare facilities where sick people need to be protected. Bacterial resistance to these products could also result in a cross-resistance to antibiotics that are used to treat people with infections.

Another important concept to understand is not all bacteria are harmful. Some bacteria help us stay healthy by keeping disease-causing bacteria under control. The bacteria-killing agents in products do not recognize the difference and kill both good and bad bacteria. This may result in more, rather than less illnesses.

Hygiene Over Hype

Antibacterial products have grown increasingly popular since they were first introduced—and heavily marketed—in the 1990s. Everyday household products which may contain bacteria-killing agents include:

  • Soaps
  • Disinfectants, surface cleaners, and window cleaning solutions
  • Ointments and non-moisturizing lotions
  • Toothpaste and mouthwash
  • Surface wipes

If you and your family follow good hygiene measures, you are probably better off not using antibacterial products. However, these products may be appropriate if you have a medical reason and your doctor has told you to use them. You may also need to use these cleaning products in high traffic areas such as the kitchen (especially cutting boards) and bathroom.

When it comes to avoiding disease-causing germs, proper hygiene means more than any product label. To decrease your chances of getting common infections, follow these basic steps:

  • Wash your hands—Wash hands thoroughly with plain soap and water. Teach children to do this often, especially before eating, after going to the bathroom, and after school.
  • Safely prepare food—Besides cooking meats completely and storing food appropriately, make sure the surfaces on which they are prepared are cleaned.
  • Keep your germs off of others—If you are sick, you should cover your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing. Follow-up with proper hand-washing.

Challenging Claims

The Food and Drug Administration and some states in the US are challenging manufacturers to prove that the chemicals in their soaps and cleaning liquids are safe for long-term use. If not, manufacturers may be forced to remove the chemicals from them. For now, be sure to read the active ingredients on the back of the products you choose and to use them wisely.


Food and Drug Administration
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases



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Last reviewed March 2016 by Michael Woods, MD
Last Updated: 3/16/2016

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