The FDA Doesn't Believe the Hype on Antibacterial Soap

The FDA proposed a rule today that would require manufacturers to prove that antibacterial soaps are safe for long-term daily use. Because right now, they probably aren't.

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The Food and Drug Administration proposed a new rule today that would require manufacturers behind products like Cetaphil, Dial, and Softsoap to prove that antibacterial soaps are safe for long-term daily use, and that they more effectively prevent illness and the spread of infection than their non-antibacterial counterparts. Because right now, they probably don't.

According to the FDA, there's reason to believe that antibacterial soaps and body washes don't work any better than regular soap — and could actually be harmful to users:

Although consumers generally view [antibacterial] products as effective tools to help prevent the spread of germs, 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.

Under the new rule, soap makers would have to provide clinical studies and other proof to the FDA showing the preventative-health advantages of antibacterial soap in order to keep marketing the products. The FDA notes in their statement that alcohol-based hand sanitizers remain a good alternative to soap and water. The FDA is inviting "consumers, clinicians, environmental groups, scientists, industry representatives and others" to weigh in on the rule during a comment period, which will last for more than 180 day. The rule should be finalized by 2016.

According to the Associated Press, the FDA first began evaluating triclosan and other similar ingredients more than 40 years ago, and has been pressured recently to rein in use of the antibacterial. NBC reports:

Environmental groups and some members of Congress, such as Massachusetts Democrat Edward Markey, have been calling for limits on the use of triclosan. The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) sued and the FDA agreed last month to do something about triclosan by 2016. “It’s outrageous that FDA has waited 35 years to protect the public from this harmful chemical. This final rule should prohibit triclosan from use in soaps,” Mae Wu, a lawyer for NRDC’s health program, said in November.

Last week, the FDA issued guidelines to reduce use of antibacterials as a growth enhancer for livestock in an effort to combat increasing human resistance to antibiotics. The FDA's proposal also follows its decision to block 23andMe from selling DIY genetics test kits. The company has since pulled the product. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.