Antibacterial Cleasers Can Hurt Immune System

July 17, 2000 -- A little more dirt might be just what the doctor ordered.

Repeated use of popular antibacterial soaps on children might actually contribute to the development of chronic diseases, according to Tufts University microbiologist Dr. Stuart Levy, who spoke today at the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases in Atlanta.

The ingredients in soaps and cleansers intended to fight bacteria could promote the growth of drug-resistant “superbugs” that might otherwise be kept in check with little more than a vigorous scrub, Levy says.

Misguided Efforts

In fact, the efforts of humans to keep their bodies and the things they touch bacteria-free are misguided, Levy says.

“The vast majority of bacteria are out there serving a purpose for us. Helping our intestinal track mature, helping our immune system mature.”

His theory is part of what is called “The Hygiene Hypothesis.” It states that when young children do not get enough exposure to bacteria, some scientists suspect the immune system can overreact to pollen or dust, or other ordinarily harmless substances. And that, scientists say, may be the reason for the rapidly rising rates of asthma and allergy.

“The Hygiene Hypothesis is all about killing the good bugs that we need to stimulate our immune systems in our body and provide competition with the bad bugs,” says Professor Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota.

“Dousing everything we touch with antibacterial soaps and taking antibiotic medications at the first sign of a cold can upset the natural balance of microorganisms in and around us, leaving behind only the ‘superbugs,’” Levy says.

Old Methods, Tried and True

Levy says older cleansers such as soap and hot water, alcohol, chlorine bleach and hydrogen peroxide are sufficient for most purposes. Levy says strong antibacterial cleaners are needed only when someone in a household is seriously ill or has low immunity.

“If we are to avert a crisis, people need to stop and think twice before using fortified cleansers and pressuring their doctors to give them antibiotics for every infection,” he says.

Levy says a recent Italian study found that exposure to bacteria is essential for development of an infant’s immune system. He says a baby must be exposed to germs during its first year in order to develop antibodies needed to fight infection later in life.

“Just as a child needs lot of exercise to develop strong bones and muscles, a child’s immune system needs a rigorous workout to develop normal resistance to infections throughout life,” Levy said.

ABCNEWS’ John McKenzie and Reuters contributed to this report.