Are Antibacterial Soaps Dangerous?
by Lisa DiFalco
Antibacterial hand washing soaps and dishwashing soaps are easily found in grocery store aisles throughout America. Somehow, a belief developed that washing hands with an antibacterial soap was more effective that washing with plain soap and water. Is this belief a misconception? Should children, adults and active seniors return to using regular soap and water to wash away dirt and germs? Has the American public yet again become guinea pigs for consumer products that can endanger their health? Recent developments and a recent FDA ban make consumers question the safety of the ingredients in their antibacterial soap. Learn more about the latest developments to impact hygiene practices in homes across America.
An Overview of Antibacterial Soaps
The American Cleaning Institute® proposes that the difference between antibacterial soaps and plain soaps provides the benefit of reducing the number of germs on the skin for an extended period of time after washing hands. This is done through adding “a special ingredient for controlling germs.” The average consumer is told that:
“[a]ntibacterial soaps kill or inhibit bacteria that cause odor, skin infections, food poisoning, intestinal illnesses and other commonly transmitted diseases.”
Antibacterial soaps are not only used in homes but in healthcare setting such as hospitals and nursing homes, where the transmission of disease and germs are of significant concern. Triclosan and triclocarban were introduced in hospitals in the 50s and 60s. Triclosan has continued to be an active ingredient in many antibacterial soaps and household products, such as toothpaste and shampoo.
Hand washing was not always seen as important as it is today. Those using antibacterial soap may not receive the full benefits as such soap may be only effective when on the skin for two minutes. The human body also depends on beneficial bacteria, and antibacterial soaps do not discriminate between “good” and “bad” bacteria. The value of antibacterial soaps is being hotly contested. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) puts forth the claim that washing hands well using soap and water is sufficient and the use of antibacterial soap is not necessary. However, is the use of antibacterial soaps not only superfluous but dangerous to human health? The FDA ban makes consumers question their use of antibacterial soaps.
The FDA Issues Ban
As of September 2nd, the FDA issued a ruling that has banned a total of 19 chemicals found in both hand and body washes. Triclosan and triclocarban are at the top of the list. Companies manufacturing antibacterial soaps have been given a year to remove the products or to take the listed ingredients out of products. The ban from the Food and Drug Administration applies solely to consumer products at this time. It does not apply to wipes, hand sanitizers or products used in healthcare settings. In addition, those products marketed as hand wash and as an antibacterial dishwashing liquid fall under the supervision of the Environmental Protection Agency as they are regulated as pesticides. The ban also will not be enforced for a range of products containing triclosan, including shampoos, body lotions and toothpaste.
This is not the first time that the FDA had wanted more data on the safety and effectiveness of antibacterial soaps. In 2013, the FDA proposed a rule that companies were to provide additional data. In response, many companies began to remove specified ingredients and replace them with substitutes. Dial’s “All Day Freshness” is one product that continued to contain triclocarban as their antibacterial ingredient as posted on its website.
The FDA’s list of banned ingredients as of Friday are:
- Triple dye
- Sodium oxychlorosene
- Secondary amyltricresols
- Phenol 16 (less than 1.5%)
- Phenol (greater than 1.5%)
- Methylbenzethonium chloride
- Undelcoylium chloride iodine complex
- Povidone-iodine (5 to 10%)
- Poloxamer-iodine complex
- Nonylphenoxypoly (ethyleneoxy) ethanol iodine
- Iodine complex (phosphate ester of alky laryloxy polyethylene glycol)
- Iodine complex (ammonium ether sulfate and polyoxyethylene sorbitan monolaurate)
The FDA statement shared that there was not enough data to prove the safety and efficacy of the 19 ingredients. The agency stated:
“For these ingredients, either no additional data were submitted or the data and information that were submitted were not sufficient for the agency to find that these ingredients are Generally Recognized as Safe and Effective.”
Conflicting Statements on Antibacterial Use and Safety
The FDA in a press release stated that consumers should use regular soap and water for cleaning purposes. They shared that:
“There’s no data demonstrating that over-the-counter antibacterial soaps are better at preventing illness than washing with plain soap and water.”
The National Defense Council originally requested the ban because they saw evidence that triclosan, triclocarban and other specific chemicals used in antibacterial soaps and other products have the potential to cause muscle weakness and disrupt home cycles, according to senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, Mae Wu.
However, there are soap industry advocates, like Brian Sansoni, spokesperson for the American Cleaning Institute®, that stand behind benefits of antibacterial soap. Sansoni stated in an email:
“Washing the hands with an antiseptic soap can help reduce the risk of infection beyond that provided by washing with non-bacterial soap and water.”
Why is a Ban Necessary?
In efforts to promote consumer safety, the ban is a significant accomplishment for the FDA and those that believe that not enough evidence is currently available to prove the safety and effectiveness of the listed antibacterial chemicals. As health professionals and scientists learn more about the long-term benefits and drawbacks of the ingredients, products will be made and marketed to consumers that are safer with fewer potential health dangers. Biologist Jonathan A. Eisen is cautious in how triclosan and other ingredients are used in many consumer products. He said:
“In some situations, and in some products, it seems plausible that some of these chemicals have benefits that exceed the risks.”
However, additional data and research are necessary to determine the value and necessity of the listed ingredients in common household products.