If you use antibacterial soap in the bathroom or kitchen, take a close look at the ingredients it contains.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has banned the use of 19 chemicals in antibacterial hand and body washes. Such chemicals include triclosan and triclocarban. Manufacturers have one year to remove the chemicals from their products.
In making its announcement, the FDA said these chemicals can cause more harm than good. It also dumped cold water on theories that antibacterial soaps help protect human health.
“Consumers may think antibacterial washes are more effective at preventing the spread of germs, but we have no scientific evidence that they are any better than plain soap and water,” says Dr. Janet Woodcock, director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a press release announcing the decision.
The dangers of some antibacterial chemicals
The FDA’s decision may disappoint consumers who believe their antibacterial soaps will now have reduced power to fight germs, says Peter Rice, a professor in the Department of Clinical Pharmacy at the University of Colorado Skaggs School of Pharmacy.
But Rice believes such concerns are misplaced. “This FDA decision is better viewed as providing consumers with safer products that have been shown to be equally effective,” he says.
The FDA’s move is the result of studies showing no benefit to adding certain antibacterial chemicals to soaps, Rice says. In addition, some of the banned chemicals were known to pose a health risk to some people.
For example, the ingredient triclosan has activity in biofilms, a form of bacterial growth that can contribute to infection and that is often resistant to treatment, Rice says.
Some of the banned chemicals on the FDA list also have been associated with disruption of hormone cycles and muscle weakness.
“The FDAs ruling to remove these ingredients helps balance the benefits of antibacterial chemicals with risks from exposure to them,” Rice says.
Rice adds that chemicals that remain available as antibacterials — such as lactic acid — are considered equally effective in fighting germs, and safer for consumers to use.
Some of the chemicals that have been banned as consumer products will still be available in hospital settings, where their use may have benefits that outweigh the risks associated with them.
In addition, the FDA ruling does not apply to hand sanitizers and wipes.
Tips for staying germ-free
If you want to stay germ-free this fall and winter, Rice says washing your hands the old-fashioned way – with plain soap and water – is your best weapon against illness.
“The take-home message is that appropriate hand washing and use of hand sanitizers work just as well without additional antibacterial chemicals,” Rice says. “Keep washing your hands, and you will likely not miss the antibacterial chemicals.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also the following five-step approach for effectively washing hands:
- Place hands under running water — warm or cold — and apply soap.
- Rub hands together with the soap, getting the backs of your hands, between fingers and under nails.
- Keep this up for at least 20 seconds. The CDC recommends singing the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
- Thoroughly remove the soap under clean, running water.
- Use a clean towel or air-dry your hands.
If you don’t have access to running water and soap, the CDC recommends using a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. But the CDC also notes that sanitizers do not eliminate all germs and harmful chemicals, and that washing hands with soap is always your best bet.