I grew up on a cattle ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. After spending nearly 20 years working as a copywriter in advertising, my first book, Confessions of a Slacker Mom, came out in spring of 2004 and made the San Francisco Chronicle's best-seller list. My second book, Confessions of a Slacker Wife, was released in spring of 2005.

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Please Pass the Germs

I went yesterday to buy some liquid soap for my kids’ bathroom. As a lazy person I’m glad they make liquid soap in pump bottles because it means I don’t ever have to wash out the soap dish. Oh, sure, I realize that washing something which is primarily “dirtied” by soap is probably considered easy, but I’m the type who’s always looking for cleaning jobs I can get out of.

That’s not the only reason I like liquid soaps, though. It’s also because I remember the grimy look of the green Lava bars we always had in our house when I was growing up. Even as a kid, picking one up from the mucky soap dish in our bathroom made me momentarily wonder if I would be removing dirt from my hands . . . or actually putting it on.

I must admit, though, that although Lava bars weren’t glamorous, they did work. I didn’t know until I left home that Lava got its name, back in 1893, because it actually contains pumice from volcanos, which is what gives it the abrasive quality that literally scrubs the dirt from your skin. My mom always said it was the only soap that could get the black axle grease off my dad’s hands when he came in from fixing a tractor on the cattle ranch where I grew up. Apparently that was good enough for her because Lava was our family soap.

I’m not trying to sell you on Lava, though. I’m just remembering, wistfully, when a mom could buy a soap for her family to use that simply scrubbed the germs away, rather than trying to kill them by poisoning them with chemicals. A soap, in other words, that didn’t have antibiotics in it.

As I stood, on sensory overload, in the soap aisle in the grocery store yesterday, I noticed that every one of the liquid soaps they stocked was antibacterial. This must be a feature that’s in high demand, especially for moms. In fact it’s basically impossible, just going by the selection at all the grocery stores near our house, to buy a soap marketed to children that’s not antibacterial. And there are now not only soaps but laundry detergents, shampoos, toothpastes, body washes, mouthwashes, dish detergents and lots of household cleaning products that are also lethal weapons in what is apparently an all-out war against bacteria.

I’d just like to know who decided that we needed to wage this particular war (Cheney? Rumsfeld? Who?), because even the American Medical Association does not endorse antibacterial soap. This might seem cynical, but I wonder if it could have been the soap marketers. I hate to think this about corporate America, but I just wonder if, in their determined zeal to fulfill their fiduciary duty to their stockholders, they might try to sell us something that we don’t really need. Or that might not even be good for us.

I’m no immunology expert myself, but our own pediatrician told me when my first child, Belle, was a baby, that indeed it’s important for children to be exposed to a certain amount of germs because it helps their immune systems develop. It might mean they have runny noses or diarrhea a couple times a year, but in the meantime they’re developing the ability to fight off really serious diseases for the rest of their lives. Sounds like a good trade-off to me.

I’ve also read that it’s overuse of antibiotics — and let’s be clear about this, antibacterial soap is an antibiotic — which has led to the emergence of new bacterial strains that are largely untreatable because they are resistant to existing drugs. Now that doesn’t sound like a good trade-off.

I saw a story on CNN.com a month ago that asked “Are germs good for children’s health?” and, according to the doctors they interviewed, the answer was “yes.” Here’s what I really loved about the article, though. One doctor they spoke with, who’s a pediatric ear, nose and throat specialist, let his own fourteen-month old daughter not only eat food off the floor but put a shoe and their dog’s toy in her mouth, right in front of the reporter. And he’s not just a dad, he’s an expert!

I’ve already said, I’m no expert, myself. But I think this is just one example of how there can sometimes be a big difference in what product marketing people tell us we need and what we actually need. And this must be especially true for moms. We mothers might be more fearful of falling down on the job than those in any other profession, so it wouldn’t be surprising if that makes us susceptible to marketing messages that prey on those fears. Especially if they’re telling us we’ve got to buy such-and-such a product to make our kids safe, or happy, or smart. I bet we need a lot fewer products than they would have us believe.

But speaking of products, I did just hear some good news. Lava now comes in a pump bottle.

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