Often assumed by consumers to be the gold standard in hygiene, antibacterial soap has recently come under scrutiny from the US Food and Drug Administration. Finally!
The FDA has issued a proposal, still in its final stages, which will require makers of antibacterial soaps and cleansers to definitively demonstrate that their products not only work, but that they’re also, you know, actually safe to use. Apparently there is growing concern that these soaps, which contain a slew of nasty antibacterial chemicals, may do more harm than good when used on a daily basis.
“Antibacterial soaps and body washes are used widely and frequently by consumers in everyday home, work, school and public settings, where the risk of infection is relatively low,” explained a representative from the FDA in a statement made Monday. “Due to consumers’ extensive exposure to the ingredients in antibacterial soaps, we believe there should be a clearly demonstrated benefit from using antibacterial soap to balance any potential risk.”
Triclosan, an antibacterial agent and preservative, is a common ingredient in liquid antibacterial soaps. This despite the fact that it has long been considered a contributing factor in the dangerous rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. All across the world, these stronger super-bug bacterial strains are emerging as a serious public health threat, most likely as the result of overuse of chemicals such as triclosan.
But that’s not the only problem with triclosan. It’s also believed to irritate skin, alter development, affect reproduction and disrupt thyroid hormone function; it’s also possibly carcinogenic. Triclosan produces harmful toxins such as dioxin and chloroform when it reacts with other agents in the watershed, and therefore has far-reaching environmental consequences. Triclocarbon, a chemical pesticide used in antibacterial bar soaps, is closely related to triclosan and poses similar problems for both people and the planet.
Health and environmental issues aside, perhaps the most alarming revelation to come from the proposal was this: after 40 years of study, the FDA has concluded that there is no evidence to support the claim that antibacterial cleansers are more effective in preventing the spread of germs, as opposed to simple soap and water.
According to Stuart Levy MD, a professor and researcher at the Tufts University School of Medicine, “The FDA is finally making a judgment call here and asking industry to show us that these products are better than soap and water, and the data don’t substantiate that.”
Which is, you know, troubling.
Liquid hand sanitizers, sanitizing wipes, and antibacterial products used in health care facilities are mostly made up of alcohol or ethanol. These are generally recognized as safe, and will not be affected by the proposal.