Antimicrobial (often simply called “antibacterial”) soaps and body washes made headlines last December when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a proposed rule that would require manufacturers to provide data showing that their products are safe for daily use and are superior to plain soaps in reducing infections and preventing illness. If they can’t, they will have to reformulate or relabel their products.
The ingredients in question include triclosan (in liquid soaps) and triclocarban (in soap bars), as well as benzalkonium chloride and benzethonium chloride (both of which are also found in non-alcohol hand sanitizers, though this proposal does not address “leave-on” hand sanitizers per se or the use of any of these products in healthcare settings).
This FDA action follows petitions from environmental groups, as well as requests by several lawmakers, for the government to restrict or ban triclosan as the European Union and other countries do. Besides the fact that there is no evidence that antibacterial products provide clear benefit outside health-care settings, there is concern that their ingredients are contributing to the development of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. In addtion, the FDA is looking into data from animal studies that show that triclosan acts as a hormone disrupter, causing changes in estrogen, testosterone, and thyroid hormones, which could affect puberty, fertility, and brain function.
The Environmental Protection Agency is also investigating triclosan (since it is used as a pesticide as well) and will work with the FDA to get a better idea of typical exposure levels and health effects in people, since exposure may be higher than previously thought. In one study, triclosan was detected in the urine of nearly 75 percent of 2,500 people tested.
We don’t recommend soaps or body washes labeled “antibacterial” or “antimicrobial” for ordinary household use. Check the ingredients in “deodorant” or “antiseptic” soaps as well. If a product has a “Drug Facts” label, that’s a good sign it contains antibacterial agents.