It's Time to Make Friends With Your Germs

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It seems like a no-brainer: Bacteria are evil and must be destroyed. And Americans have taken to the hunt with vigor, employing a dizzying array of "anti-bacterial" soap, cleansers and lotions in a desperate attempt to rid their environment of each and every last microbe. Unfortunately, say doctors, that vigilance could yield disastrous effects. In a move that sent the brass of the world's major soap companies running to their executive bathrooms, the American Medical Association announced Wednesday that they'd like to see the Food and Drug Administration step in and regulate anti-microbial agents in consumer products. The AMA is worried, it seems, that Americans' zest to rid their homes and bodies of all things bacterial may provide an opening for dangerous bacteria, whose numbers were previously kept under control by the presence of innocent, harmless microbes.

Here, TIME medical contributor Dr. Ian Smith weighs in on our war against the germs:

Q: Why is overusing antibacterial soaps dangerous?

A: We need to be careful when we use these products, because an overuse can create resistant strains of bacteria — which can be far more threatening than any normal germs we come in contact with during the day.

Q: Aren't all bacteria dangerous?

A: Not at all. Normal bacteria live all over the place: In our bodies, on everything we touch. We actually need them around because their presence helps stem the number of bad bacteria we come in contact with.

Q: So the good bacteria compete with the bad bacteria?

A: Imagine that bacteria ate apple pie in order to live. If you have millions of good bacteria gobbling down huge pieces of the pie, there isn't much left for the harmful bacteria. But when we use all of these antibacterial soaps and lotions, we're killing off the good bacteria, and leaving more of the pie for the dangerous ones.

Q: It doesn't sound like anyone needs to use these soaps.

A: Actually, some people can definitely benefit from using the stronger soaps. If you're handling bodily fluids, or working around contagious patients, or changing diapers, for example, you might want to consider using an antibacterial cleanser. But for most of us, plain old soap and water will do the trick.