There Is No Proof That Antibacterial Soap Is Better Than Regular Soap, FDA Says

A proposed rule would require companies to show antibacterial soap prevents infection more effectively, or else reformulate products.
Keith Williamson/flickr

There are certain phrases that stick in your head for years, for seemingly no reason. One of these for me is from a book called Germs! Germs! Germs! that I think we read in kindergarten. One page said, “Hot soapy water—what a curse!” and pictured some disgruntled germs fleeing soap bubbles. I think about this while washing my hands sometimes.

Washing your hands can be a scientifically fraught act, though. Are the germs really fleeing our antibacterial soaps? Or are they biding their time, growing ever-stronger? Overuse of antibiotics and antibacterial products can cause germs to grow resistant to the very things we use to kill them. With that in mind, the Food and Drug Administration yesterday announced a proposed rule that would require companies to show that their antibacterial products are safe to use every day and, taking it a step farther, that they are more effective than regular soap and water.

The FDA said in a press release, "There is currently no evidence that they are any more effective at preventing illness than washing with plain soap and water. Further, some data suggest that long-term exposure to certain active ingredients used in antibacterial products—for example, triclosan (liquid soaps) and triclocarban (bar soaps)—could pose health risks, such as bacterial resistance or hormonal effects."

"We believe there should be a clearly demonstrated benefit from using antibacterial soap to balance any potential risk,” said Dr. Janet Woodcock, director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

The proposed rule is now available for public comment for 180 days. Once finalized, companies who haven’t been able to support their claims with data will have to either remove antibacterial ingredients from their soaps, or relabel them to remove the antibacterial claim.

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Julie Beck is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Health Channel.

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