It’s back to school time in many areas, and the cold and flu season is approaching, so better stock up on antibacterial soap, right?
Well, the FDA says no.
The FDA is the Food and Drug Administration in the US.
One of its roles is to ensure manufacturers provide safe products, especially products that make health claims.
Washing your hands with soap and water remains one of the most effective ways to prevent infection, but there’s no data to prove that added antibacterials are beneficial.
In fact, some research even suggests they could be dangerous.
In another recent BellyBelly article, we looked at research that shows our kids can even be negatively affected by being ‘too clean'.
It seems much of what we thought was necessary and healthy, could in fact be unnecessary, and even harmful.
Why Does The FDA Require The Removal Of Antibacterials?
At the beginning of the 20th century, antibiotics, antibacterials, and general hygiene became important aspects of health, and many new products hit the market, claiming to prevent infections.
If manufacturers make health claims about certain products, the product’s ingredients, and the claims, must be approved by the FDA. Two ingredients reviewed, and required to be removed from soaps within the next year, include triclosan (which is also in the popular Australian toothpaste, Colgate Total) and triclocarban.
Both are effective antibacterials. They break open the cell walls of bacteria, thus destroying them, but they take several hours to do this.
Most people wash their hands for only 30-60 seconds, which means antibacterials are unlikely to be more effective than plain soap and water.
Is Plain Soap Really Effective In Preventing Infections?
When we wash our hands with soap and water, the surface bacteria are washed away. Many types of bacteria need certain environments to stay alive. Simply washing our hands thoroughly removes them, and sends them down the drain where they’re unlikely to be passed on to another person.
The FDA and The Center For Disease Control both say, “Washing with plain soap and running water remains one of the most important steps consumers can take to avoid getting sick and to prevent spreading germs to others”.
Claims that triclosan and triclocarban are effective antibacterials that kill many types of bacteria are true, but manufacturers were unable to prove that they provide this benefit in hand soaps.
There’s no data to show they’re more effective at preventing the spread of germs than plain soap and water.
Are Antibacterials Dangerous?
As early as 1978, the FDA began investigating the safety of antibacterials in hand soaps.
With pressure from environmental groups, as well as from some congressmen, the FDA gave soap manufacturers until 2016 to provide evidence for the effectiveness and safety of triclosan and triclocarban in hand soaps.
While we don’t have concrete proof that these antibacterials are harmful to human beings, there is evidence showing harmful side effects in animals.
Some studies suggested high doses affected the way hormones work in the body.
Soap manufacturers have been unable to prove they are safe and effective in hand soaps, and therefore some will have to be removed within a year.
The FDA has given soap manufacturers another year to provide data regarding the safety and effectiveness of some other antibacterials. During this period, antibacterial soaps can still be sold and marketed with those ingredients (but not with triclosan or triclocarban).
Many healthcare providers have even warned about the overuse of antibiotics, antibacterials, and antiseptics, as they also kill the good bacteria while killing the bad. In certain circumstances, the benefits of killing bad bacteria certainly outweigh the risk of killing good bacteria.
In everyday life, for the average healthy consumer, however, overusing these products doesn’t seem to have a benefit, and has the potential for harm.
What Does This Mean For Healthcare Settings?
Hospitals and other healthcare facilities face unique needs when it comes to proper sanitising. The ban of triclosan and triclocarban applies strictly to commercial hand soaps.
Hospital cleansers, hand sanitisers (in hospitals as well as commercial products) and antiseptic produces in hospital and food handling settings are not included in the FDA statements regarding the ban of certain antibacterials.
The FDA is continuing to investigate the safety and effectiveness of hospital antiseptics, but the research, evidence, and ruling about benefit and risk are very different from those regarding commercial hand soaps.
Use Plain Soap And Water
It can be hard to switch habits, especially when decades of marketing have led us to believe antibacterial soap is beneficial. However, there simply isn’t enough data to support using antibacterial soaps. When we pair that with studies that suggest potential hormonal influences, it makes the most sense simply to use plain soap and water for our everyday handwashing.
Both the FDA and the CDC support handwashing with plain soap and water, and these recommendations are backed by current research.
Recommended Reading: Expecting a new baby? Read 5 Ways To Give Baby’s Immune System A Head Start.