Five Reasons Why You Should Probably Stop Using Antibacterial Soap
As the FDA recently noted, antibacterial products are no more effective than soap and water, and could be dangerous
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few weeks ago, the FDA announced a bold new position on antibacterial soap: Manufacturers have to show that it's both safe and more effective than simply washing with conventional soap and water, or they have to take it off the shelves in the next few years.
About 75 percent of liquid antibacterial soaps and 30 percent of bars use a chemical called triclosan as an active ingredient. The drug, which was originally used strictly in hospital settings, was adopted by manufacturers of soaps and other home products during the 1990s, eventually ballooning into an industry that's worth an estimated $1 billion. Apart from soap, we've begun putting the chemical in wipes, hand gels, cutting boards, mattress pads and all sorts of home items as we try our best to eradicate any trace of bacteria from our environment.
But triclosan's use in home over-the-counter products was never fully evaluated by the FDA—incredibly, the agency was ordered to produce a set of guidelines for the use of triclosan in home products way back in 1972, but only published its final draft on December 16 of last year. Their report, the product of decades of research, notes that the costs of antibacterial soaps likely outweigh the benefits, and forces manufacturers to prove otherwise.
Bottom line: Manufacturers have until 2016 to do so, or pull their products from the shelves. But we're here to tell you that you probably shouldn't wait that long to stop using antibacterial soaps. Here's our rundown of five reasons why that's the case:
1. Antibacterial soaps are no more effective than conventional soap and water. As mentioned in the announcement, 42 years of FDA research—along with countless independent studies—have produced no evidence that triclosan provides any health benefits as compared to old-fashioned soap.
"I suspect there are a lot of consumers who assume that by using an antibacterial soap product, they are protecting themselves from illness, protecting their families," Sandra Kweder, deputy director of the FDA's drug center, told the AP. "But we don't have any evidence that that is really the case over simple soap and water."
Manufacturers say they do have evidence of triclosan's superior efficacy, but the disagreement stems from the use of different sorts of testing methods. Tests that strictly measure the number of bacteria on a person's hands after use do show that soaps with triclosan kill slightly more bacteria than conventional ones.
But the FDA wants data that show that this translates into an actual clinical benefit, such as reduced infection rates. So far, analyses of the health benefits don't show any evidence that triclosan can reduce the transmission of respiratory or gastrointestinal infections. This might be due to the fact that antibacterial soaps specifically target bacteria, but not the viruses that cause the majority of seasonal colds and flus.
2. Antibacterial soaps have the potential to create antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The reason that the FDA is making manufacturers prove these products' efficacy is because of a range of possible health risks associated with triclosan, and bacterial resistance is first on the list.
Heavy use of antibiotics can cause resistance, which results from a small subset of a bacteria population with a random mutation that allows it to survive exposure to the chemical. If that chemical is used frequently enough, it'll kill other bacteria, but allow this resistant subset to proliferate. If this happens on a broad enough scale, it can essentially render that chemical useless against the strain of bacteria.
This is currently a huge problem in medicine—the World Health Organization calls it a "threat to global health security." Some bacteria species (most notably, MRSA) have even acquired resistance to several different drugs, complicating efforts to control and treat infections as they spread. Health officials say that further research is needed before we can say that triclosan is fueling resistance, but several studies have hinted at the possibility.