Dettol protects: fact or fiction?

Readers in the UK (and possibly further afield, for all I know) will probably have seen a TV advert for a household disinfectant called Dettol, which has the strapline “Dettol protects: fact”.

We are generally shown pictures of mummies with cute little kids and told how important it is to keep the kids protected, so the mummies clean their kitchens with Dettol. There is a clear implication that doing so will keep the little ones protected from nasty germs and therefore healthier.

There is a problem with that, however. Although I do not doubt for a minute that Dettol is highly effective in killing bacteria, to assume that killing a few bacteria around the kitchen translates into better health is a giant leap of faith. The fact is that bacteria are a normal part of our environment, and millions of years of evolution have equipped our immune systems to deal with them. Kitchens are not operating theatres. There is no obvious reason why it is necessary, or even desirable, for them to be sterile. Clearly, a bit of hygiene is sensible, and we don’t want to leave chunks of rotting meat around, but going further than that and attempting to massacre bacteria at every opportunity doesn’t have self-evident benefits.

But hang on a moment, I hear you cry, isn’t it just obvious and common sense that fewer bacteria in your kitchen means a lower risk of infection? Well, no. As I said earlier, we are constantly exposed to bacteria in every part of our environment, and we have immune systems that are rather good at dealing with them. If we are to believe that wiping our kitchen surfaces with antibacterial products such as Dettol will improve our health, and if Dettol are going to make that claim in their adverts, then we need to see evidence that it is true.

So what does the evidence show?

OK, I haven’t done the most thorough literature search in the whole world ever here, so it’s possible I’ve missed something (and if I have, dear reader, do please let me know in the comments box below), but as far as I can tell, the evidence shows that household antibacterial products are not beneficial to health, and may possibly even be harmful.

Believe it or not, someone has actually done a randomised double-blind controlled trial of household antibacterial products, looking specifically at the rate of infections. They found that antibacterial products made no difference.

Concerns have also been raised that household antibacterial products may contribute not only to increased antibiotic resistance, but also, and I personally think this is a more important risk, to an increased risk of allergies.  The hygiene hypothesis, which is not yet conclusively proven, but which does have some pretty good evidence behind it, states that the immune system needs exposure to bacteria during childhood as part of the normal maturation process. If too few bacteria are encountered, the immune system has trouble figuring out what it is supposed to be doing, and develops allergic responses instead. This is widely believed (although I repeat, not completely proven) to be responsible for the huge increase in the prevalence of allergies in recent decades in developed countries, as standards of hygiene have improved and children encounter fewer bacteria.

Development of allergies is not a trivial matter. Food allergies can be fatal (although thankfully this is rare), but deaths from asthma, another disease with an allergic basis, are far more common. And that’s on top of all the misery and discomfort from less serious allergies, such as eczema or hay fever.

To sum up, there is no evidence that Dettol protects against infections, and there is a prima facie case that it may increase the risk of allergies (although to my knowledge no-one has done a randomised controlled trial to look at the effect of Dettol on allergies, so we can’t say with any certainty that it does).

Now, given that “Dettol protects: fact” seems to be such a misleading statement and utterly unsupported by evidence, I reported this advert to the Advertising Standards Authority. For those unfamiliar with it, this is a self-regulatory body in the UK, which is funded by the advertising industry, and claims to uphold standards among advertisers.

So, surely they wouldn’t let such a misleading advert go unchallenged, would they? Well, yes, they would. They told me that other people have made complaints against Dettol in the past, and they have found in Dettol’s favour, and so therefore they wouldn’t consider my complaint. That would be fair enough if others had made the same complaint, but the other complaints were about completely different matters. For example, someone complained because they doubted the claim that Dettol could kill MRSA. Apparently it can, so it was fair enough that that complaint was not upheld.

That, however, is totally irrelevant to my complaint. I do not doubt that Dettol kills bacteria. My complaint was about Dettol’s claim to protect human health, a claim for which there is, to the best of my knowledge, absolutely no evidence. In my humble opinion, it is irresponsible to advertise a product as being something that will protect your children’s health, when in fact it may be harming them by increasing their risk of allergies.

That distinction was completely lost on the ASA. I see this as evidence that the conflict of interest that results from the ASA being funded by the advertising industry is not being well managed.

To sum up in advertising-speak:

Dettol protects: fiction. ASA protects advertisers: fact.

About the author

Adam Jacobs

set up Dianthus Medical in 1999. He is an experienced medical writer and statistician, has a PhD in organic chemistry from the University of Cambridge and an MSc in medical statistics from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. You can follow him on Twitter @dianthusmed

16 responses to "Dettol protects: fact or fiction?"

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  2. Eileen Allen

    I agree with you wholeheartedly. Being a “mummy” who reads things I never bought into the keeping my children and family healthy by killing every living organism in the kitchen but they present an idealised picture of a happy family and the implication is that if you don’t use their product you are failing your family.

    As a woman who is sick and tired of the cosmetics industry peddling out and out lies and the ASA allowing them to get away with it, I have long lost my faith in any consumer protection. The cosmetics industry, in my opinion, literally cheats women out of their hard-earned money by lying to them about what their pseudo-scientific products can achieve.

  3. Adam Jacobs Adam

    Thanks for those comments Eileen.

    In fact thinking about it some more, the ASA is actually worse than useless, as it gives a veneer of respectability to the advertising industry that it simply doesn’t deserve.

    The government should decide whether it wants adverts to be regulated or not. 2 courses of action would then be reasonable:

    1. Replace the ASA with a proper statutory body with complete independence from the advertising industry and real powers, so that it can regulate adverts properly.

    2. Abolish the ASA, and make it widely known that adverts are completely unregulated. Advertisers would then be free to say whatever the hell the like in any advert, but consumers would also know that most adverts would be a pack of lies, so no-one would be fooled.

    At the moment, we have the unfortunate middle way in which consumers believe that adverts are supposed to be truthful, but in reality many of them are not. That does not serve the consumer well.

  4. Dr Summia Naz

    Dear Adam

    Interesting article. In a particular the part regarding allergies. Allergies are definitely on the increase and one should ask the question why? Why are there so many triggers. I honestly believe alot of these household detergents contribute so eczema and as a result allergic asthma. If most of these strong detergents are irritants then I presume the strong vapour entering the body is an irritant too. I have first hand experience with this type of trigger. Cleaning the bathroom specifically is a health hazard (the windows have to be open)

    A lot more research needs to go into these type of products and as indicated in your article the health benefits needs to be weighed up.

  5. Mark

    Fact: Dettol strips paint of wooden surfaces.
    Fact: Dettol (undiluted)can burn several layers of skin off your face.
    I know these to be fact because I have locked horns with the great giant known as Dettol before.But this was a few years ago and only involved their original Disinfectant.Since then I havent had any Dettol products within my home.
    I was raised in the sort of family home that was typical of the 1960/70s ie I was clean and clothed and fed,but the crumbs were brushed off the table for the Dog to hunt for.All that was used to clean up with was hot water and some washing up liquid (Detergent).
    My brother and sisters plus myself all grew up without any allergies and only had a cold or the flu very very rarely.
    This level of clearness I have continued to maintain whilst my children were growing up and,yes,once again my children have no allergies nor ailments.
    We all know that is was the bacteria on planet earth that killed off the alien life in H G Wells’s The War of the Worlds because they hadn’t got the immunity to our germs and bugs. I really do hope we are not going to end up sterilizing ourselves into non existence too.
    So pooh pooh to Dettol and give me germs any day.

  6. Hazza

    I was actually wondering about this advert. Alarm bells started ringing when the man on the advert said, “[pause] Dettol protects, that’s a fact”

    Exactly what does it protect? And what from?

    I think they mean dettol protects surfaces from accumulating dirt.

    Surface protected from dirt sticking, that’s a fact.

  7. Dr Yonk

    I firmly believe that the increase in allergies pointed out by Dr Naz is a product of a modern era where households are becoming a sterile environment influenced by claims made by companies such as Reckitt Benckiser, the makers of Dettol, that anti’germ’ is good for us. Germs are our mates in early life, to an extent, as they will prime our immunity for a better future in a hostile pathogen environment, which our basic immunity can in fact cope with very well given a pre-exposure to, well, dirt., in essence. Children should be encouraged to eat filthy stuff and play in the dirt, as it will only make them more resilient to future infections. Imagine a child growing up within the ‘sterile’ confines of a domestos/dettol home going to school, where other children, apparently riddled with germs are playing. This child is a mecca for germ activity. I agree with Mark and the others…let the germs be.. no harm to them means likely no harm to your children in the long term. Children in the 50′s for instance had very little antibacterial in the home, and they are today, parent of the 30-40 somethings. Tell them they should have been living ina sterile home!.
    I know that when (if!) i ever have children, they will not be cleaned with Dettol or any other disinfectant unless they do truely have an infection that requires attention.
    FACT; Immunity is paramount for future survival. Dettol may protect in the short term, but a sterile home is an unhealthy home (in my opinion

  8. Lisa

    I never liked the advert. My son just started nursery. They use Dettol on everything and i don’t know how to address my concerns as everybody seem to believe Dettol is some kind of God. My skin doesn’t like anti bacterial soaps and washing up liquids. Maybe they can start to make some research on me. I can’t be the only one who gets skin problems from these kind of products? Now my son has started to get allergic reactions in his face because he touches the surfaces in nursery and then he touch his face. They spray the whole place with Dettol constantly.

  9. Raktim

    Hello Adam! I totally agree with you. I watched a program in Discovery Channel 3-4 years ago, where they’ve shown how exposure to bacteria is important for a child to grow the immune system. But it’s hard to make people believe in the neighborhood.

    well … but whom am I blaming? I made a mistake myself! I used raw dettol on a small cut in my face. and it burnt my skin. it’s been a week, the burn healed. but left a dark circular mark. I just hate dettol sooo much right now. They just kill everything, regardless if it’s a bacteria or a well functioning human cell!! X(

    I’m scared if the spot is permanent. you have any solution for it? please reply if you can suggest something…..

  10. Stacey

    I agree. Just yesterday I discovered my son (11 months old) is allergic to dettol. They used it on him at school and he came out in hives. Im from South Africa where Dettol soap/handwash/and the normal orange liquid are advertised alot. The more clean we are, the more we get sick and need antibiotics. Its a scam to get us more sick so that the medical industry can make more money off us. Thanks for exposing Dettol. They will never admit this and the advertising industry will never allow the truth to be told.

  11. sofia ahmed

    Thanks a lot adam for helping us I have same problem with dettol mop my face burns its been years now could not find out how its happning my grand children olso have devlope ellerges the are 5*nd 6 one get rashes on skin and other one is coufing and veezing the dettol we use is for moping and cleaning the bathrooms and kitchen its in red colur bottle meant for cleaning floors and says kill bactaries

  12. My child broke out in rash and blisters on hands which got severely swollen only to discover they started spraying dettol on the kids hands at nursery school. He is only 2.

  13. Ethan

    So many companies do this and it happens without anyone battering an eyelid. It actually happens a lot in the health/sport industry – shoes, compression gear, toothpaste, health foods, the list goes on. None of this stuff has been independantly tested. The most disturbing thing is how the media twist the actual facts or doesn’t include them all. If you want to use science in an ad, you have to use it properly. Technically, science cant ‘prove’ anything, so I cant see why media can clam proof? So frustrating. I understand that ads arent a great format for discussion and they only show what will sell the product but only showing one half of the story is something that would be ridiculed in other situations -i.e judge. Its kinda the same thing.

  14. Ethan

    Another thing, that, ‘kills 99.9% of germs’ slogan is also misleading. I supose its more unexplained than misleading but that slogan could be explained in a lot of different ways.

  15. Angelina

    Hi there Adam,

    Thank you for you honest and frank article. I am a mum to a large family with a new addition arriving soon. I have previously been sucked into the dettol trap. However after much reading and researching I am pleased to say I will no longer be using them. I have been wanting to become a more eco family for sometime and we are in the process of swapping all of our usuals for biodegradable and eco products. I have read a few of your articles and I find them informative and interesting. So again I would like to thank you and I will be back to read some more soon!

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