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April 16, 2014

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Kill germs? Plain soap will do

“Spread Love, Not Germs.” That’s the headline on the website for Bath and Body Works’ antibacterial moisturizing hand soap — available in wild honeysuckle or vanilla berry sorbet — and the wording didn’t come about by accident. Every advertising message these days is tested to the hilt. That’s especially true when it comes to cleaning products, those aids and scourges to women everywhere, the original province of marketing via guilt.

Sorry, gender warriors: They know how to push our buttons. Just as most car ads pitch testosterone (go fast around that cliff, ye virile sportscar), cleaning-product ads are pitched to women, based on the cold, hard facts about who’s more likely to pass through the personal-hygiene supermarket aisles. For personal grooming, we get messages of empowerment -- hence that viral Pantene ad that argues for women in the workplace, while subtly suggesting that they’d also do well with fantastically shiny clean hair.

For cleaning, meanwhile, we’re sold on either luxury or love. If you really want to protect your kids, the soap ads say, you’ll block every possible germ.

It might take the FDA to stop the madness.

This month, the agency proposed a sweeping ban on antibacterial soap, unless companies can prove that the ingredients they’ve added for the purpose of killing germs — most often, chemicals called triclosan and triclocarban — don’t also wind up creating drug-resistant bacteria or polluting the environment. (Environmentalists have been complaining about this for years. Headline from The Oregonian: “Antibacterial soap? Not if you love your river.”)

The cleaning-products industry is lashing back, tossing out studies of its own, proclaiming that these chemicals are perfectly safe. But the FDA isn’t only concerned about safety. The agency is onto a more basic problem: We’ve been lured into a chemical-weapons war on bacteria, when plain old soap is usually fine.

“The main thing is, washing your hands well with soap is still the gold standard for getting things off your hands,” said Theodore Brummel, an associate professor of biology at Long Island University.

I called Brummel because he has a better sense than most about bacteria’s relationship with people — largely because of the work he’s done with fruit flies, unearthing some interesting data about how tiny germs help flies develop early in life.

His studies have helped fuel a new line of thinking about our clean-obsessed culture, including a “hygiene hypothesis” to help explain the rise in allergies. Brummel finds it all intriguing, but inconclusive. He cautions against the swung-pendulum notion that germs are good. The trick, he says, is to view bacteria as a complex ecosystem within us. Alter one part of it — through, say, a massacre by violet-scented soap — and who knows what else you might change.

Brummel endorses cleanliness, in general, and a basic attempt to keep germs at bay. He has a no-shoes policy in his house, the better not to track stuff from his lab, and his kids wear different clothes to bed than they do in the daytime. If someone gets sick, everyone’s toothbrush gets boiled.

On the other hand, he believes in balance. He’s seen the research on the five-second rule: essentially, it’s bunk. If he dropped food in his lab, he wouldn’t eat it. But if he dropped a piece of really good chocolate on the grass? That’s another story.

As with most things, it comes down to common sense. But that’s where marketing gets in the way. When it comes to buying soap, consumers don’t always have a choice: By some accounts, “anti-bacterial” products make up three-quarters of the cleaning products you can find on store shelves.

Maybe we need the FDA to step in and save us from ourselves. At the very least, we should expect the agency to sort through the science. But there’s also precedent for consumers to kill bad products on their own, aided by a little information.

Once, most baby bottles were loaded with the chemical BPA. Now, thanks to some safety scares, most advertise themselves as BPA-free. Here’s hoping the FDA’s salvo last week provides enough knowledge to change the pitch: Plain old soap is love enough.

Joanna Weiss is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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