Ever wonder why soap companies label their products “antibacterial” instead of “antibiotic”? OK, probably not. But this is not just trivia, folks — the explanation can help us address the rather pressing problem of drug-resistant strains of bacteria. So if this post is too boring now, at least consider returning when you are dying in a hospital bed from an untreatable bacterial infection. It will seem more important then.
So the answer is that I think soap manufacturers have figured out that using “antibacterial” is much clearer than using “antibiotic” — consumers have zero expectation that antibacterial soaps kill fungi, viruses, or protozoans. That’s because to most people antibiotics have a broad range of action (Google definition; Wikipedia entry). So soap companies avoid this confusion by specifying “antibacterial,” and their usage has clearly caught on. As proof, please see the graph below to see how people search for information about such soaps online. The blue line, which shows the number of people searching Google for “antibacterial soap” is vastly higher than the red line, which shows “antibiotic soap” searches.
I make the above points not to highlight how great soap companies are, but rather to show pharmaceutical companies, physicians, and health organizations that if they’d adopt “antibacterial” as way to describe antibacterial drugs, the public would fall in line. Currently all these groups love using the word “antibiotic,” and when I’ve suggested to them that they should switch, they respond politely, “You have wasted our valuable time with this crackpot suggestion” (I’m paraphrasing). They firmly believe the word “antibiotic” is not causing the public confusion. I think they haven’t really thought about how misnomers work on the brain — they truly do influence people’s perceptions. I also believe that they haven’t searched Google for the definition of “antibiotic”, and that they haven’t looked at the Wikipedia entry (links above). I fully admit that word “antibiotic” doesn’t confuse microbiologists or physicians, but those people make up a rather small proportion of the world’s population. The remaining people are justifiably confused about the specificity of “antibiotics,” and that’s why they tend to demand antibacterials from their doctors for viral infections. For example, many people use Google to research specificity of antibiotics; they never search for specificity of antibacterial (see graph in a new window). Getting rid of “antibiotics” should be a no-brainer for anyone concerned with the over-prescription of antibacterials.
So I’m looking for just one medical association, one non-profit, or one pharmaceutical company brave enough to abandon “antibiotic”. It would be good press, and it would help fight the evolution of drug-resistant bacteria.
Please see, “Curbing the misuse of antibiotics” for further information if you are concerned with evolution of antibacterial-resistant strains of bacteria. My theme, again, is that simply deleting “antibiotic” is an insanely easy thing we could all do.