Antibacterial soaps may do more harm than good

It's an old question about anti-bacterial soaps: if you're going to wash the germs down the drain, why kill them, too?

Now the Food and Drug Administration is challenging manufacturers of antibacterial soaps to prove that their products do more good than harm. The agency says that there is no evidence that these soaps are more effective at preventing illness than washing with plain soap and water.

Long-term exposure to triclosan and triclocarban, active ingredients in liquid and bar soaps, "could pose health risks, such as bacterial resistance or hormonal effects,” according to an FDA statement in December.

"New research, coupled with the wide-spread daily use of these products, prompted the agency to take action," according to Melissa Sargent, environment health educator who joined the Ecology Center in the merger with Local Motion Green last year. "The new rule is welcomed by many health advocates that have been warning about the dangers of triclosan and triclocarban for years."

The agency proposed that companies must provide data to support their claims, remove the antibacterial ingredients, or remove the antibacterial claim from the product’s label. The proposed rule also changes how the agency will test antibacterial soaps for their effectiveness, and require proof of a benefit over washing with non-antibacterial soap.

Sargent first reported on the concerns regarding antibacterial soaps in a 2007 article, Soapy Solutions to Antibacterials. "Plain soap and water and rubbing your hands together under running water works fine," she said. The FDA announcement said, "Hand washing is one of the most important steps people can take to avoid getting sick and to prevent spreading germs to others.”

The Centers for Disease Control also provides useful information at Handwashing: Clean Hands Save Lives.

The FDA, which oversees triclosan as an ingredient in over-the-counter drugs, is collaborating on the proposed regulation with the Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates triclosan as a pesticide. Their joint effort aims to create “government-wide consistency in the regulation of the chemical.”

EcoLink — January 2014
An online publication of the Ecology Center

Comments and questions are welcome.
Please send to EcoLink Editor.