Buying soap used to be so simple.
Find your brand--switch brands if there's a sale--then toss it in the cart.
Of course, that was before "germ warfare" struck the soap-and-detergent aisle with a vengeance.
Now, antibacterial is the industry buzzword--imprinted on the labels of bar soaps, liquid soaps and kiddie soaps. And there are already variations on the theme, with some antibacterial soaps just for sensitive skin and other germ-killing formulas that promise to moisturize as they murder. Dish detergents and body washes have also jumped on the antibacterial bandwagon.
Never mind that some experts say that antibacterials are overkill for most people. And never mind that the word antibacterial on a soap label has absolutely no meaning right now in the eyes of the Food and Drug Administration. As the agency and the soap makers debate in coming months who can claim bacteria-killing power, consumers are left to wonder: Do these new soaps deliver? And are they worth the usually higher prices?
"Germs are hot," says Nancy Dedera of the Dial Corp., which lays claim to developing the first germ-killing soap in 1948 with the introduction of the Dial deodorant bath bar.
But only recently has the antibacterial trend skyrocketed.
Antibacterials are gaining a foothold in the soap industry, which in the past year had bar soap sales of $1.5 billion; liquid soaps tacked on another $285 million, according to Information Resources Inc., a Chicago market research company. More than a third of those sales may be antibacterial, according to one industry estimate.
The antibacterial formulas contain many of the same cleansers, fragrances and colors found in ordinary soaps. But the germ-killing soaps also list on the label an "active ingredient" --typically the antibacterial agents triclosan in liquid formulas and triclocarban in bar soaps.
Manufacturers stop short of claiming that their new germ-killing soaps will reduce the risk of getting sick, but they cite plenty of studies showing that hands (and presumably other body parts) washed with antibacterial soaps have fewer bacteria remaining in residence than those washed with ordinary soap.
Ordinary soap "doesn't kill germs, but helps to flush them off," Dedera says. "Antibacterials kill germs on contact and help prevent their regrowth."
In one test of the Dial for Kids antibacterial formula, 49 children used a non-antibacterial soap for two weeks and then switched to the antibacterial formula for 12 days, says Marc Shaffer, a Dial chemist. "As compared to a placebo bar, the test soap resulted in a 72.8% reduction in bacteria [on the hands]," Shaffer says.
"We tested it against 104 different bacteria," he adds, including the germs responsible for diarrhea, skin infections and other ailments.
Antibacterial liquid soap is "at least 90% more effective against germs than ordinary soap," says Constantina Christopoulou, a chemist at Colgate-Palmolive Co., which makes Irish Spring and Softsoap in antibacterial formulas. Just as important, she adds, antibacterial soaps "leave an effective amount of triclosan on the skin that keeps on working after the washing is complete." The residue is effective, she says, up to two hours.
Most antibacterial soaps are so new that the FDA is still pondering how best to regulate them. Right now, the label antibacterial on a soap "doesn't have a meaning," says Ivy Kupec, an FDA spokeswoman.
"You're not given any guarantee when it says antibacterial that you're cleaning off your hands the bacteria you want to be cleaning off your hands," she says. "There's no [FDA] rule in place governing antibacterial soap."
Last year, the FDA proposed that antibacterial soaps and over-the-counter antiseptics be regulated in the same way. It's a plan the soap industry doesn't support, says Irene Malbin, spokeswoman for the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Assn., a Washington, D.C.-based trade group.
Later this month, the group plans to file comments on the proposed rule-making. "We're basically saying the products are good products, as they are, and should not be adversely affected," she says. Regulations for antiseptics are considered too stringent for antibacterial soaps, she says.
Kupec says the FDA is open to discussing other options.
There's no doubt that the human body--no matter how well-groomed--is a walking reservoir of bacteria, says Dr. Peter Katona, chairman of the infection control committee at UCLA Medical Center and UCLA assistant professor of medicine.
"Bacteria are all over our skin and mucous membranes," Katona says. "There are certain places bacteria like to hang out--nice warm areas like the groin, armpits and mouth." The hands, because they come in contact with many objects and people throughout the day, are also terrific bug-catchers.
Even so, he adds, antibacterial soaps are overkill for most people. The pertinent question to ask about such soaps is: Are you going to get sick less often if you use them?