Report: Antibacterial Soap Is Not Safe Or Effective

Within a year, soaps containing antibacterial ingredients like triclosan will be gone from store shelves in the US. The US Food and Drug Administration announced a rule today that it's no longer considering these ingredients safe and effective in soaps sold to consumers. Photo by Mike Mozart.

We've long recommended that you stick to plain old soap and water, since regular soap does a fine job of washing away germs. The antibacterial ingredients might also pose risks to your health and to the environment. Now the US FDA are backing us up.

Years ago, the FDA allowed the sale of these soaps because the chemicals in them are fairly safe, and a few squirts of soap aren't likely to hurt anyone. Their use became so widespread, though, that triclosan has been found in human milk and dolphins' blood. Most freshwater streams are contaminated with it. Triclosan kills both "good" and "bad" bacteria, and it may be encouraging germs to become resistant to other antibiotics.

In 2013, the FDA asked manufacturers for more data on the safety and effectiveness of 22 antibacterial ingredients used in hand soaps. Today, they announced a decision for 19 of the ingredients, including triclosan:

Companies will no longer be able to market antibacterial washes with these ingredients because manufacturers did not demonstrate that the ingredients are both safe for long-term daily use and more effective than plain soap and water in preventing illness and the spread of certain infections.

By September 6 of next year, those 19 ingredients won't be legal in over-the-counter hand washes in the US. The other three ingredients are benzalkonium chloride, benzethonium chloride and chloroxylenol. A decision on those has been deferred to next year.

This rule doesn't affect hand sanitisers or antibacterial wipes. Hospitals will also still be able to use antibacterial soaps. Some soap makers, knowing they didn't have a strong case, started reformulating their products right after the 2013 request for information. That means many US soaps may have already ditched the antimicrobials.

Though Australian manufacturers who don't export to the US will be largely unaffected by this ruling, it's a good reminder for the average consumer that the more expensive antibacterial stuff you're eyeing may not be worth the extra buck. Stick with plain ol' soap - you'll be better off.

Check out the links below for the official FDA rule, and the easier-to-read consumer update.

Safety and Effectiveness of Consumer Antiseptics: Topical Microbial Drug Products for Over-the-Counter Use [FDA via FDA Consumer Updates]


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