Counting on antibacterial soap to help you combat the common cold? You won’t be able to do so for much longer, though, and research shows it probably wasn’t helping in the first place.
This month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the over-the-counter (OTC) sale of soaps containing 19 antibacterial chemicals, giving the industry one year to phase out their use. About 40 percent of soaps on the market contain these chemicals—triclosan and triclocarban being the most common. It’s likely that you come in contact with one or more of these chemicals on a daily basis, cleaning your hands, your clothes, or your hard surfaces. These newly prohibited antibacterial agents have been shown to cause more harm than good, though, and the FDA says it’s time to get rid of them.
The use of antibacterial compounds in cleansing products may be linked to an increased risk of resistant bacteria. When bacteria come in contact with an antibacterial substance, certain proteins are targeted and killed. Some studies have described strains of bacteria that appear to have acquired reduced susceptibility to antiseptics found in hand soaps. Antibacterial chemicals have also been shown to be endocrine disruptors, which means they can interrupt hormone function.
If that isn’t enough to get us to stop washing our hands with soaps that claim to kill 99 percent of germs, research has demonstrated that they are no more effective at preventing infectious illness symptoms and reducing bacterial levels than regular soap and water.
Chemicals like triclosan and triclocarban should not be confused with compounds found in hand sanitizer, which most frequently contain drying agents such as isopropyl alcohol. These work by breaking down the proteins of most surface microbes rather than targeting specific type bacterial proteins like antibacterial washes do. There is no evidence of bacterial resistance to alcohol-based hand sanitizers, however.
The FDA proposed a rule in 2013 after data was published suggesting that long-term exposure to antibacterial compounds could pose health risks. This regulation required manufacturers to provide the FDA with data that showed the effectiveness of these chemicals outweighed the safety risks. The industry failed to prove that antibacterial washes work better than regular soap, or provide data that would warrant the FDA to identify these 19 chemicals as safe for OTC use.
The American Cleaning Institute trade group issued a statement on the recent ruling contending, “Consumer antibacterial soaps and washes continue to be safe and effective products for millions of people every single day.” The American Cleaning Group also maintained that it and its member companies will submit additional data on the ingredients they use.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) also maintains that washing your hands with regular soap and water or using alcohol-based hand sanitizer is the best way to reduce the amount of bacteria on your hands.
For now, it’s safe to say that we will be seeing fewer instances of triclosan and triclocarban on drug store shelves, and that this ban is a step in the right direction for our chemical-dependent lives.
According to the CDC, each year at least 2 million people in the U.S. become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result. Overprescription of antibiotic drugs and the widespread use of antibiotics in animal agriculture are the two largest contributors to the threat of antibiotic resistance, but this act of stewardship by the FDA is significant in the government’s efforts to combat the issue.
Taking on industries that rely on materials whose long-term safety is still unknown has not always been a strong suit of the FDA’s—let us not forget that glyphosate, the most widely used agricultural chemical in the U.S., went virtually unregulated until the World Health Organization frighteningly concluded in 2015 that the pesticide “probably” causes cancer in humans.” But the agency has become increasingly rigorous in testing and regulating chemicals, like triclosan and triclocarban, which have slipped through the cracks under the label of “Generally Recognized as Safe.”