Is Antibacterial Soap Safe for You?
Is antibacterial hand soap and body wash really any more effective than plain soap and water in preventing illness and the spread of infection? Under rules proposed Monday by the Food and Drug Administration, manufacturers will be required their claims. The manufactures will also be required to prove their products are safe for long-term use. It does not apply to hand sanitizers, hand wipes or antibacterial soaps that are used in health care settings such as hospitals.
“Although consumers generally view these products as effective tools to help prevent the spread of germs, there is currently no evidence that they are any more effective at preventing illness than washing with plain soap and water,” the FDA said in a statement.
In fact, there currently is no evidence that over-the-counter antibacterial soap products are any more effective at preventing illness than washing with plain soap and water, according to Colleen Rogers, Ph.D., a lead microbiologist at the FDA.
Moreover, antibacterial soap products contain chemical ingredients, such as triclosan and triclocarban, which may carry unnecessary risks given that their benefits are unproven. According to the FDA, about 2,000 products contain those chemicals.
“New data suggest that the risks associated with long-term, daily use of antibacterial soaps may outweigh the benefits,” Rogers said. There are indications that certain ingredients in these soaps may contribute to bacterial resistance to antibiotics, and may have unanticipated hormonal effects that are of concern.
According to Rogers, laboratory tests that have historically been used to evaluate the effectiveness of antibacterial soaps do not directly test the effect of a product on infection rates. That would change with FDA’s current proposal, which would require studies that directly test the ability of an antibacterial soap to provide a clinical benefit over washing with non-antibacterial soap.
Antibacterial soaps — sometimes called antimicrobial or antiseptic soaps — contain chemical ingredients that plain soaps do not. These ingredients are added to many consumer products in an effort to reduce or prevent bacterial contamination.
A large number of liquid soaps labeled “antibacterial” contain triclosan, an ingredient of concern to many environmental and industry groups. Animal studies have shown that triclosan may alter the way hormones work in the body. While data showing effects in animals don’t always predict effects in humans, these studies are a concern.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates the use of triclosan as a pesticide, and is in the process of updating its assessment of the effects of triclosan when it is used in pesticides.
In addition, studies have raised the possibility that triclosan contributes to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics. Such resistance can have a significant impact on the effectiveness of medical treatments.