Many soap companies advertise that their anti-bacterial soaps will kill 99.99% of bacteria; however, how true is this? Is antibacterial soap better than regular soap? What soap is better for everyday family use?
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doubted anti-bacterial soap manufacturers claims, so in 2013 they asked them to back their claims with rigorous scientific testing. The FDA gave them three years to prove their claims, however by 2016 no clear evidence was presented to prove that the chemicals that were being used were safe for daily use over a long period of time OR that they were any more effective than plain soap and water. Due to this lack of evidence the FDA ruled that by September 2017 a specific set of 19 common ‘anti-bacterial’ chemicals could no longer be able to be marketed. Theresa M. Michele, MD, of the FDA’s Division of Nonprescription Drug Products states:
“There’s no data demonstrating that these drugs provide additional protection from diseases and infections. Using these products might give people a false sense of security,” Michele says. “If you use these products because you think they protect you more than soap and water, that’s not correct. If you use them because of how they feel, there are many other products that have similar formulations but won’t expose your family to unnecessary chemicals.”
In particular the following has been decided by the FDA:
- Which chemicals? The following chemicals are no longer able to be included in anti-bacterial soaps: Triclosan and Triclocarban are the most common. The rest include Cloflucarban, Fluorosalan, Hexachlorophene, Hexylresorcinol, Iodine complex (ammonium ether sulfate and polyoxyethylene sorbitan monolaurate), Iodine complex (phosphate ester of alkylaryloxy polyethylene glycol), Nonylphenoxypoly (ethyleneoxy) ethanoliodine, Poloxamer-iodine complex, Povidone-iodine 5 to 10 percent, Undecoylium chloride iodine complex, Methylbenzethonium chloride, Phenol (greater than 1.5 percent), Phenol (less than 1.5 percent) 16, Secondary amyltricresols, Sodium oxychlorosene, Tribromsalan and Triple dye.
- Will Tricolasn harm me? The FDA has not stated that Triclosan will harm people, it has stated “Animal studies have shown that triclosan alters the way some hormones work in the body and raises potential concerns for the effects of use in humans. We don’t yet know how triclosan affects humans and more research is needed”. Another good overview of Triclosan can be seen at Real Clear Science, essential the potential risk outweighs the minimal (if any) benefits.
- How to tell from the label? The product will generally mention ‘antibacterial’ on the packaging, will mention one of the above chemicals in the ingredients, or will have Drug Facts label.
- Which types of soap? This ruling applies to liquid, foam, gel hand soaps, bar soaps, and body washes. However this ruling does NOT apply to hand sanitizers, which are usually alcohol based and do not need water.
- What about Triclosan in Toothpaste? Interestingly triclosan is also common in some toothpastes, the NYT had a great article about this, essentially it is used to decrease plaque severity, gum inflammation and gum bleeding. If you don’t believe you need these particular requirements then read the ingredients on your toothpaste and make an informed decision.
- What about Triclosan in Laundry Detergent? For clothes washing the same basis as above should be taken – there is no scientific proof that you are safer using anti-bacterial products, does the risk outweigh the minimal (if any) benefits?
“Following simple handwashing practices is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of many types of infection and illness at home, at school and elsewhere,” says Theresa M. Michele, MD, of the FDA’s Division of Nonprescription Drug Products. “We can’t advise this enough. It’s simple, and it works.”
For a good overview of the most effective public health initiative in the last 100 years see our article Our Top Ten Reasons for Washing Your Hands with SOAP!
Thanks to Flickr user Kavon for the great picture (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
Maree has over five years of experience in Occupational Health and Safety and in the development of safety standards, training workshops and improvement initiatives. She is passionate about health, safety and education. Maree, a mother of two children, has a Advanced Diploma in OHS and will be graduating soon with a B.Sc. (HSE) from Australia.