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Monday, June 2, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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In Germ City, Soap And Water Are Not Enough -- New York An Easy Mark For Bacteria Mania

Knight-Ridder Newspapers

NEW YORK - Theda Joor figures she knows germs. She teaches preschoolers.

That's at least part of the reason she says she was standing under a sign that exhorts "Spread love, not germs!" in a Bath & Body Works on Manhattan's Upper East Side recently, pouring all sorts of fragrant gels and lotions on her hands.

It's not just germs from 3-year-olds that Joor is worried about. She considers life in the big city and starts thinking about all those strangers sharing the same pay phones, public restrooms, subway cars.

"All those germs are making me nervous," she said.

This kind of queasiness has made cash registers ring for marketers.

It's microbe mania

Thomas Vierhile, a market researcher who specializes in product trends, calls the anti-bacterials "the hottest new trend right now." Vierhile, editor of Product Alert, a newsletter that tracks new products, has counted a steady rise in soaps, lotions, gels, detergents, deodorizers, kitty litters, sponges - even toys and high chairs - that tout germ-killing properties. Thirty-six such products were introduced in 1992, and 123 last year, he said.

The trend is national, Vierhile says, "but New York, with its great concentration of people, is a luscious market for this kind of thing. . . . Germ phobia. That will play in New York."

It plays with Joor.

As she stood before shelves loaded with personal-care products, she talked about a new passion as she poured a dime-sized drop of freesia-scented Instant Anti-Bacterial Hand Gel into her palm. The company claims it kills 12 species of microbes within 30 seconds of contact.

"I work with 3-year-olds who sneeze and cough and get their germs on toys and books and, most of all, on me! So I figure, why not use this and protect myself?"

Bristol-Myers Squibb apparently had people like her in mind when it introduced an anti-bacterial Keri hand lotion in March with a barrage of subway ads that asked strap-hangers to consider the possibilities.

"You are the 423rd person to touch that pole today," one ad read. "Enough said."

The Bristol-Myers ad campaign was discontinued after Italian Americans objected to another billboard that cautioned, "The last guy holding that pole was named Sal Monella."

Germs - everywhere!

Months earlier, a widely discussed story headlined "New York is Germ City!" was splashed across the weekly New York Observer. The paper asked a laboratory to analyze swab samples taken throughout Manhattan and found the city an effective incubator for all sorts of staph and strep and E. coli bacteria - on taxicab seats, subway turnstiles and pay phones, and at upscale movie houses, gourmet food shops, automated teller machines and elevators.

"It was a stupid article, a cheap journalistic trick," said New York City Health Department spokesman Fred Winters. "We agree with the Observer that there are germs everywhere. Always have been. And there's no more risk today than there ever was. That's why we have antibodies. That's why we have soap and water."

A similar assessment came from Laura Fisher, a pediatrician at New York Hospital. "I would say it's a hype, except for very limited cases of young kids with immune problems," she said. "You need hot water. You need soap."

Yet, for increasing millions of people, soap and water are not enough. That, marketers say, is where their gels and lotions come in. These products, they say, are ideal for people who, in marketing parlance, are "on the go."

"We get quite a few flight attendants, nurses, schoolteachers, and parents of kids with diapers who buy the product," said Felicia Jones, a manager of the Bath & Body Works store where Joor was shopping.

Although Joor said she uses her gel several times a day, she's not immune to the common cold. She's caught two since she started using the gel, which sells for $4 for a 3-ounce bottle.

Joor said her interest in fighting germs came after seeing reports about the spread of scary bacteria-caused diseases.

Anti-bacterials now make up about 50 percent of the $2.1 billion soap and cleanser market, said a representative for Procter & Gamble. Purell, an anti-bacterial hand gel, went national last fall, turning its manufacturer, Gojo Industries of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, into a national consumer brand in stores, said company vice president Paul Alper. It had previously been sold directly to automobile mechanics, hospitals and food services.

In April, Dow weighed in with an anti-bacterial toilet-bowl cleaner. In July, Cheseborough-Pond plans to introduce an anti-bacterial version of its Vaseline Intensive Care lotion. And Heartland, an Olathe, Kan., company, has introduced Spot Shot, a disinfectant foaming kitchen cleanser.

Germ-fighting toys, too

The products are not limited to soaps, lotions and cleansers. Microban Products, a Huntersville, N.C. company, was one of the featured players during the annual national Toy Fair in New York last year for an ingredient it created to retard bacterial growth in plastic for use in toys, high chairs and athletic shoes.

That substance, however, caused problems for toy manufacturer Hasbro in April, when the Environmental Protection Agency fined the toy company $120,000 and ordered it to retract its claims of disease-fighting toys. Product labeling was changed from "Protect your child from germs and bacteria," to "Microban - built in to protect the toy; inhibits the growth of bacteria."

Also this year, the EPA ordered 3M to stop marketing anti-bacterial sponges as disease-fighters, saying the product's germicidal chemical only served to stop odor-causing bacteria from growing in the sponge, not to kill germs on contact.

The key germ-fighting ingredient in many hand gels, ethyl alcohol, is a common, commercially available antiseptic, although not one officially found to be safe and reliable by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Other germ-fighting ingredients common in such products, such as DuPont's trichlorcarban and Ciba's trichlorsan, have not been given official FDA approval.

Only two anti-bacterials - isopropyl alcohol and povadine iodine - have been so designated. Little research has been done on whether such products run the risk of creating superstrains of bacteria resistant to antiseptic washes; nor have most products been tested by federal officials to determine whether their germ-killing claims are accurate.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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