The US Food and Drug Administration banned antibacterial soaps on Friday because they’re not better, cleaner, or safer than regular soap.
“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,” said Janet Woodcock, director of the FDA’s Centre for Drug Evaluation and Research said in the agency’s press release.
“In fact, some data suggest that antibacterial ingredients may do more harm than good over the long-term,” she added.
The ban applies to products with 19 active ingredients, including triclosan and triclocarban – two widely used antibacterial agents.
There’s “extensive literature suggesting that triclosan does not provide a benefit when used in a ‘real world’ setting compared to plain soap”, Allison Aiello, an epidemiologist from the University of North Carolina who has published a review on several studies of triclosan tests, told Chemistry World.
One study, published in the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy in September 2015, compared soap containing triclosan with regular soap both in lab tests and on people’s hands. The researchers exposed people to a type of common bacteria than can infect those with weakened immune systems, then had them wash their hands with triclosan and regular soap.
They found no difference between the two soaps.
In lab tests, the researchers also exposed 20 different kinds of bacteria to triclosan soap to see if it could do any damage there. It took nine hours to show any antibacterial effects.
While that was in test tubes, not on actual humans, that’s much longer than the 20 seconds the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention recommends you take to wash your hands.
Multiple other studies have found that hand washing with antibacterial soaps does not remove more bacteria or prevent more illnesses than washing with regular soap. They just work a little differently.
While regular soaps works by mechanically removing germs from your hands, antibacterial soaps contains chemicals that can kill bacteria or inhibit their growth. And apparently that old wash-off-the-germs method works just as well as kill-them-on-contact.
Antibacterial soaps do more harm than good
The US Food and Drug Administration first registered triclosan in 1969, and the chemical has been added to countless soaps, cosmetics and cleaning products since then.
But it turns out that triclosan soap is not just an equally effective replacement for ordinary soap – it may actually be worse than non-antibacterial varieties.
Studies have found that triclosan can increase bacterial antibiotic resistance, affect hormone regulation in animals and kill algae.
Triclosan is now in so many products that research has found it was washing down drains and building up in lakes and streams. That’s part of what prompted Minnesota to become the first state to ban the ingredient in 2014.
While more research is needed to determine triclosan’s safety in small doses, studies so far have shown that there’s no real advantage.
Now that the FDA has banned triclosan and antibacterial ingredients like it, the hope is that the chemicals will stop building up in the environment. Plus, regular soap is just as good – so lather up.