Germophobe alert: 'You can create superbugs'

March 28, 2013 at 11:11 AM ET

We’ve become a nation of germophobes battling to obliterate every bug in our environment, reaching for whatever weapon we can get our hands on, from antibacterial handwipes to antimicrobial clothing.

But all that fuss about germs, scientists say, may actually be making us sicker, a worry highlighted in a recent report in the Washington Post.

“It’s absolutely possible to take it too far,” Dr. Keri Peterson told TODAY’s Matt Lauer, a self-admitted germophobe, Thursday. “You can create superbugs.”

Unnecessary prescriptions of antibiotics can create resistant strains of bacteria, while overuse of antimicrobial substances like triclosan may lead to superbugs.

Catering to our national germophobia, manufacturers have loaded a wide variety of products with triclosan: from clothing to kitchenware, to furniture and even to toys, according the Food and Drug Administration. Triclosan is also an ingredient in antibacterial soaps and body washes, toothpastes, and some cosmetics. There’s not strong evidence showing triclosan is hazardous to humans, but the FDA is currently evaluating the ingredient’s safety.

Don't completely ignore germs, but there’s no need to go overboard in eliminating them, Peterson said. “Proper hygiene is necessary to prevent the spread of germs,” said Peterson, an internist in private practice in New York. “But washing your hands with soap and water is sufficient as long as you do it properly for 20 seconds with soap and water, which is the amount of time it takes to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice.”

Soap and water is just as effective as antibacterial wipes and hand sanitizers like Purell, she said.

“Using Purell once a day is fine, but you don’t even need to do that if you have access to soap and water,” Peterson said. “Hyper-vigilance is where the problem is because, not only are people using antibacterials on their hands all the time, but there are so many new products on the market [containing triclosan]. There are slippers, socks, mattresses, toys, even chopsticks.”

That said, it's important to use hand santizer liberally and plenty of soap and water in hospitals, and when viruses such as influenza are circulating.

Even when it comes to small children, it’s not necessary to go overboard with antibacterial wipes. Babies benefit from contact with some types of germs to develop a strong immune system, she said.

“If we are not exposed to germs on a regular basis we are not able to properly build up our immune systems and that takes us into our adult hood,” Peterson said. "It makes us more likely to be prone to illness, and allergies and asthma. So kids do need to be exposed to germs.”


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