In a world full of runny noses and hacking coughs, products with labels like "antibacterial" and "antimicrobial" regularly dispense hopes of germ and illness-free lives to their users. But, as the variety of germ-fighting products continues to rise, medical experts continue to disagree over their benefits and potential long-term effects.

Waging a War on Germs

Dr. Wink Weinberg, the author of No Germs Allowed!: How to Avoid Infectious Diseases at Home and on the Road., maintains that consumers' heightened awareness of keeping clean to avoid common contagious conditions has helped drive the number of antibacterial products up, while driving the number of infectious diseases down. Still, he says, the focus should remain clear. "The important thing in preventing infection is lowering the amount of bacteria on your hands," says Dr. Weinberg.

Other experts say it is important to balance the need for cleanliness with the fact that all germs are not created equal. "For most of us, the germs we carry are not harmful and in fact they can be protective," says Elaine Larson, RN, PhD, professor of pharmaceutical and therapeutic research at the Columbia University School of Nursing.

Dr. Larson does, however, recommend using antibacterial cleaning products in households where members are:

  • Infants
  • Elderly
  • Suffering from colds , diarrhea, or other infectious diseases
  • Immunosuppressed (AIDS , undergoing cancer treatment)

Special Products

In addition, certain types of antibacterial cleansers can be clear winners for everyone. "Waterless products are extremely helpful in situations where you cannot get clean running water or cannot get to a sink," Dr. Larson maintains. Dean A. Blumberg, associate professor of pediatric infectious diseases at University of California-Davis Medical Center, agrees. "There's a lot of good science to back up that (alcohol-based hand rubs) are more effective than soap and water to decrease microbial count," he says. Alcohol-based products formulated with emollients offer moisturizing benefits to the skin, as well.

As for the ever-widening range of non-soap antibacterial products, like toothpastes and cutting boards, while they may sound appealing, there is no scientific proof they are effective. They may also lead to an unhealthy, false sense of security.

The Downside of Cleanliness

Repetitive hand-washing, which includes lots of friction and increased skin shedding, can aggravate some sensitive skin conditions—like eczema and psoriasis —and cause others, cautions Dr. Larson. She adds that nurses, who must wash their hands very frequently, suffer from many skin problems and are likely to harbor unhealthy bacteria because of it. "For nurses, we try to find products, such as alcohol-based hand rubs, that are milder for the skin and still effective in killing bacteria."

Still, the biggest drawback to using antibacterial products is not their damaging effects to skin, but their potential long-term effects, says Dr. Blumberg, who is also a member of Alliance Working for Antibiotic Resistance Education (AWARE). "The major concern is that if these products are used widely, that resistance may develop to these products, which may produce cross-resistance to antibiotics used to treat people," he says.

There are some situations, though, where you will want to use common antibacterials:

  • Blood spills on surfaces—Use household bleach diluted 1 to 10 (one cup of bleach in 10 cups of water).
  • The dog went to the bathroom in the house—Use bleach,but clean up the mess first. Apply the disinfectants to the newly cleaned surface.

Hygiene Over Hype

Experts do agree that when it comes to avoiding disease-causing germs, proper hygiene means more than any product label. Dr. Weinberg explains, "It is important for everybody who wants to decrease their chance of getting common infections to wash their hands more frequently and clean surfaces more frequently."

Dr. Weinberg offers these tips to help avoid the most common infections:

  • Washing your hands—Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water, and dry them just as thoroughly with a disposable towel. Teach children to do this often, especially before eating, after going to the bathroom, and after school.
  • Preparing food—Besides cooking meats completely, make sure the surfaces on which they are prepared are washed scrupulously and dried with a disposable towel.
  • Keep your germs off of others—If you are sick, you should cover your mouths and nose when coughing and sneezing. Follow-up with proper hand-washing.