Consumer and market use of antibacterials at home : The Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal

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Consumer and market use of antibacterials at home


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The Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal: October 2000 - Volume 19 - Issue 10 - p S114-S116
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The antimicrobial product market in the United States and abroad has undergone significant growth in the last decade. Almost 700 antimicrobial products have been introduced to the market since 1992 and account for one-half of the $2.1 billion household cleanser market in the United States. 1 Lysol developed its first disinfectant in the 1890s; today virtually all Lysol products are labeled as disinfectants. In recent years other manufacturers of household cleaning products, such as The Clorox Co., Proctor & Gamble and S. C. Johnson, have made their own contributions to the antimicrobial product marketplace.

The introduction of Microban allowed antimicrobial protection to be incorporated into a variety of durable products. As a result consumers can now purchase antimicrobial items such as sponges, cutting boards, knives and food storage for their kitchens, as well as bathroom accessories, clothing and children’s toys, with the hope that these microbe-fighting items will reduce their exposure to infectious organisms. However, the use of Microban may be misleading. Although microbial populations on the surface of the object are reduced or eliminated, this protection against bacteria, mold and fungi is limited to the specific product. Thus although the Environmental Protection Agency has started to curb the claims made by manufacturers of these products, direct consumer education is also necessary. For example the consumer must understand that an antimicrobial sponge will not kill bacteria, mold or fungi on kitchen surfaces. The antimicrobial protection applies only to microbes that become trapped within the sponge after it has been used to wipe a contaminated surface. Likewise antimicrobial food preparation and storage products will not disinfect contaminated food, which still must be handled appropriately.


A 1998 Gallup Study of Consumer Awareness and Perception of Antibacterial Products 2 looked at consumers’ growing concerns about infectious microbes. In this study 66% of adults reported that they were either very or somewhat concerned about exposure to bacteria and virus, and 40% believed that bacteria and viruses are becoming more widespread. Likewise the majority of adults (72%) believed that some bacteria are growing resistant to antibiotic treatment, and almost one-half of these individuals are seriously concerned about this issue. Only 18% of adults surveyed believed that all infections can be successfully treated, and 10% said they did not know. Furthermore 75% of consumers surveyed between 1996 and 1998 believed that the elderly are at greater risk for infections than the general population. Studies have shown that older consumers are more likely to be concerned about bacteria and viruses. 2, 3 Based on US demographic analysis and projections, the median age of consumers is expected to reach 35.7 years this year and will be almost 40 years by 2040, with 35% of the consumers in 2040 over age 65 years. Thus the level of consumer anxiety over the threat of bacterial and viral infection, whether real or perceived, is expected to increase.

Psychologically the consumer’s world is becoming increasingly complex and fast-paced. Pressed for time, with too much to do and too little time in which to do it, the consumer may feel overwhelmed by a host of “invisible enemies.” A concerned consumer will seek out a guiding expert, in the form of a person, organization, product, Internet site or book, to provide them with answers and show them how to reduce their exposure to harmful microbes. These consumers often end up with so much conflicting information that they become uncertain about the accuracy of any of the information they receive.


Product safety

According to the 1998 Gallup Study of Consumer Awareness and Perception of Antibacterial Products, 2 33% of consumers surveyed expressed the need for special antibacterial cleansers to protect their homes from bacterial and viral pathogens. Consumers most likely to perceive such a need included young adults with children younger than the age of 5 years or teenagers and adults with allergies, sinus or asthma problems. Additionally 26% of adults in the study believed that special antibacterial soaps or body cleansers are needed to avoid microbial contamination on the skin. Liquid hand soap, disinfectant sprays and all purpose bathroom and household cleaners are the most commonly used antibacterial products.

In contrast 35% of the adults in the survey were concerned about the safety and efficacy of antimicrobial products. The primary concern was related to the chemical content of the product. Some consumers were apprehensive about using any chemicals (22%). Others worried that the antimicrobial product may not have been fully tested for safety (16%) or that these products may actually be contributing to antimicrobial resistance (10%).

Exposure to specific pathogens

When these consumers were asked to identify the specific pathogens that were the most alarming, Salmonella and Escherichia coli, commonly publicized foodborne pathogens, were identified with the greatest frequency, followed by Streptococcus and Staphylococcus, which are the causes of common childhood infections.

Specific areas of vulnerability in the home

When asked whether certain rooms in the home were more likely to be susceptible to microbial contamination, consumers cited the bathroom and kitchen as most vulnerable to bacteria and viruses. Children’s rooms were also considered to be prone to contamination by many consumers, a perception that may be fostered by the frequency with which children get sick. Other areas of the home consumers mentioned as susceptible to bacterial and viral contamination, but deemed less vulnerable, were pet areas, heating/cooling systems, the laundry, the basement and the living or family room.

Specific situations that trigger concern

Consumers polled in the study described specific activities that they perceived to be as more likely to increase their exposure to bacteria and viruses. These activities included using public restrooms, handling raw meat, being ill or caring for someone ill, diapering infants and playing with pets. Toilets topped the list of areas consumers rated as high risk for microbial contamination, followed by cutting boards, kitchen sinks and counters, bathroom sinks and tubs and baby items. Interestingly consumers also ranked their own hands and, to a less extent, their bodies as high risk for spreading microbial infections.


Even though consumers in general are increasingly more concerned about the potential for bacterial and viral contamination, not all share the same level of concern about the use of antimicrobial products. Four attitudinal market segments have been identified, based on the level of concern exhibited for the risk of infection and the extent of antimicrobial product use 3 :

1. True believers and committed users of antibacterial products (35% of consumers) are the least skeptical of the effectiveness of antibacterial products, believing that they provide peace of mind and confidence about cleanliness. These consumers are more likely to be heavy users, especially of bathroom and personal products.

2. Skeptical but pragmatic users (27% of consumers) have the highest level of skepticism about the efficacy of these products but the lowest level of concern about their safety. They have a favorable attitude toward the benefits these products can provide but are less convinced than the “true believers” about the necessity. These individuals tend to be moderate to heavy users of traditional household cleaning products.

3. Safety and germ-concerned light users (27% of consumers) are highly concerned about the safety of antibacterial products but skeptical about their effectiveness.

4. Laissez-faire light users (13% of consumers) have a low level of concern over bacterial and viral contamination and are less likely to have children at home. They are not convinced of the potential benefits of antibacterial products.


A 1996 Hard Surface Cleaner Market Study asked consumers what they looked for in household cleaning products. 4 Given the widespread use of disinfecting household cleaners, it was not surprising to find consumers indicating that disinfectant and antibacterial properties were among the most important benefits of the cleaning products they use most frequently. Consumers want all-purpose cleaners to disinfect, cut through grease readily, deodorize effectively and be cost-effective. For bathroom cleaners consumers also want the ability to remove soap scum and stains, while leaving no film or residue.


Although manufacturers use different terms to describe products that “kill germs,” consumers do not perceive significant differences among the terms. Thus consumers do not realize the difference between disinfectant products, which eliminate nearly all microbes, including bacteria and viruses, and antibacterial products, which kill only bacteria. Consumers also believe that sanitization means germ-free, which is not always true. Furthermore most consumers assume that products kill germs in <1 min, unless a time element is specifically stated. 5

Consumers associate deep emotional rewards with the functional aspect of using antimicrobial products to kill infectious microbes. The emotional underpinnings are 2-fold: (1) consumers perceive that because antibacterial products kill microbial contaminants quickly, they will have more free time; (2) their quality of life will be enhanced as a result of an antimicrobial product, due to less missed work and fewer doctor bills. Thus antimicrobial products give consumers an overall feeling of comfort by allowing them to take an active role in fighting the transmission of bacteria and virus.


In this increasingly complex, time-constrained world, consumers will continue to look for solutions that promise them peace of mind. A large component of this peace of mind is perceived as personal safety against infectious agents. Manufacturers have a responsibility to provide sound advice and to develop solutions to consumers’ questions. Through working with leaders in the infection control field, as well as governmental organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, manufacturers can develop faster and more effective disinfectant and antimicrobial products. Targeted education programs are needed that clearly and effectively communicate proper infection control techniques and prudent use of antibacterial products to both the consumer and the health professional. Manufacturers should also work closely with the media to educate the public about the potential benefits and risks of their products. Finally manufacturers of household and personal cleaning products should help set guidelines for regulatory monitoring, including correct definition and use of common terms such as antibacterial, antimicrobial, antiviral and sanitization, as well as the extent of protection the consumer can expect from the product.


1. Spake A. Losing the battle of the bugs: resistance to antibiotics. US News and World Report, May, 1999.
2. Current population reports: Population of the United States by age, sex, race and Hispanic origin:1995–2050. Washington, DC: Bureau of the Census, February, 1996.
3. The 1998 Gallup Study of Consumer Awareness and Perception of Antibacterial Products Multi-Sponsor Surveys Inc, March, 1998.
4. Hard surface cleaner market study, October, 1996.
5. LYSOL germ kill terminology research. Prepared for Reckitt & Colman by Hauser Furstace, Inc., August, 1999.

Antibacterials; home cleaning products.

© 2000 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.