The First Defense: Soap and water

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An FDA advisory panel urges the agency to study the risks and benefits of the consumer use of antimicrobial soaps, lotions and other products.

Editorial. Nov. 28, 2005.

It's no wonder that people are always wringing their hands about germs. Regular influenza -- easily passed from hand to hand -- affects 5% to 20% of the population annually, triggering an estimated 200,000 hospitalizations and 36,000 deaths. But in this day and age, that's hardly the only worry. Media reports of a deadly strain of avian flu in Asia, for instance, have increased overall anxiety about infectious disease. And these recent headlines come on the tails of other disturbing reports -- SARS, smallpox, and monkeypox. And, of course, there is always the common cold.

It's not surprising, then, that consumers are increasingly reaching for antibiotic soaps and lotions in an effort to protect themselves and their families. But the science is unclear about whether these products actually offer a benefit or pose a public health

That's why the Food and Drug Administration's Nonprescription Drugs Advisory Committee was right to meet last month to consider the use of these products outside the health care setting. Ultimately, this advisory panel urged the agency to study the products' risks versus benefits, questioning whether they actually reduce the transmission of infection and whether they contribute to antibiotic resistance.