by Gabriel W. Rangel
figures by Michael Gerhardt

How many times per day do you wash your hands? Do you ever think about the type of soap you use? We all know handwashing with soap is an impactful way to maintain health by decreasing the risk of becoming infected with one germ or another. Therefore, using soap with antibacterial compounds added is a no-brainer, right? Wrong! At least according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In fact, on September 2, 2016, the FDA banned 19 supposedly antibacterial additives commonly found in over-the-counter soaps. So why has the FDA decided to prohibit these seemingly helpful additives?

How does soap work?

To fully understand the FDA’s ruling, we should first understand a little about how soaps clean and disinfect. A quick chemistry refresher will remind us that there are two general types of molecules: polar (things that can be mixed into water, like sugar) and nonpolar (things that cannot be mixed into water, like oil).

Soap molecules are amphipathic, meaning they have both polar and non-polar properties. This gives soap the ability to dissolve most types of molecules, making it easier to wash them off your hands (Figure 1). In terms of illness-causing germs, which are mostly bacteria and viruses, soap has a two-fold effect: one chemical and one behavioral. Firstly, the amphipathic nature of soap loosens the bacteria and viruses off your hands so they can be washed away more easily. Secondly, you tend to wash your hands for a longer period when using soap, because you try to rinse all of it away. Thus, regular soaps don’t necessarily kill bacteria and viruses as much as they simply help you wash them off your skin.

Figure 1: The amphipathic nature of soap molecules help lift dirt and bacteria off skin and into water so that they can be washed away.
Figure 1: The amphipathic nature of soap molecules help lift dirt and bacteria off skin and into water so that they can be washed away.

Antibacterial soaps have all the same properties as regular soap, but with an extra ingredient added that is intended to stop the bacteria remaining on your skin from replicating. The idea is that this additive will further protect the hand-washer from harmful bacteria as compared to regular soap. It is important to mention that these ingredients generally have no effect on viruses, so the focus is to reduce the risk from bacterial germs. The most common antibacterial additive found in consumer hand soaps is a compound called triclosan.

Triclosan: the good, the bad, and the unknown

A Swiss company called Ciba-Geigy was the first to synthesize and patent triclosan in 1964, and, by 1970, it was in use around the world as a surgical scrub in hospitals. Today, it is estimated that 3 of every 4 antibacterial liquid soaps sold to the typical consumer contains triclosan as the active ingredient.

While it is a useful part of many consumer products such as toothpastes, there are some concerns regarding the use of triclosan. Studies done on cells and animals in labs suggest the chemical can impact hormone signaling and other biological processes. There is also evidence that accumulation of triclosan in the environment negatively impacts organisms like algae in aquatic ecosystems. However, it is also important to point out that, to date, triclosan has not been directly linked to negative health effects in humans. On the other hand, some of the other additives recently banned by the FDA, like hexachlorophene, have been directly shown to be harmful to humans, especially with high or repeated exposure. Fortunately, for chemicals like these, the FDA has had limitations in place for years to ensure over-the-counter exposure to consumers is within safe limits.

Lastly, there are concerns that triclosan use may increase the risk of generating drug-resistant bacteria. It is well documented that bacteria normally found on your skin can become resistant to triclosan itself. Specifically, triclosan-resistant bacteria typically have mutations in proteins called enoyl-acyl carrier protein reductases (ENRs), which are important for the biosynthesis of cell membranes and are also targets for other clinically used antibiotic drugs like Isoniazid. Thus, when bacteria populations are continually exposed to triclosan, especially from environmental accumulation, they develop mutations in their ENRs to survive the exposure. The major public health concern is that these ENR mutations can also make these bacteria resistant to other antibiotics prescribed by doctors (Figure 2). If this is the case, limiting the use of triclosan to only products where it is most effective could be very important.

Figure 2: Environmental exposure to triclosan helps bacterial populations develop resistance mutations to triclosan and other important antibiotics
Figure 2: Environmental exposure to triclosan helps bacterial populations develop resistance mutations to triclosan and other important antibiotics

The FDA’s Position

Perhaps the most important role of the FDA is to protect public health. One way it can do so is by ensuring compounds in consumer products are “generally recognized as safe and effective.” While there is little evidence to suggest triclosan and other antibacterial additives are directly unsafe for humans, the actual effectiveness of these additives in household soaps had still not been proven as of a few years ago. With that in mind, the FDA issued a ruling in 2013 that required manufacturers to provide direct evidence that household soaps marketed as antibacterial are better at reducing germs and chances of infection compared to plain soaps. Companies had one year to submit their studies.

To date, there has been no conclusive evidence to suggest household antibacterial soaps are an improvement over non-antibacterial soaps. In fact, one study found it didn’t matter whether a household used plain or antibacterial soap containing triclocarban, a compound that is closely related to triclosan and is a part of the FDA ban: both cut the incidence of childhood pneumonia and diarrhea in half.

This means that if you are washing your hands with antibacterial soap, you are exposing yourself and the environment to increased amounts of these chemicals without any measurable benefit. It is for this reason that the FDA has banned adding triclosan and 18 other common antibacterial agents to household soaps, and manufacturers will have until September 2017 to comply with the ruling.

Nonetheless, there are still consumer uses for triclosan that have been proven extremely beneficial, and these are not banned by the FDA. For instance, toothpaste with triclosan has been shown to significantly reduce plaque formation, cavity formation and gingivitis compared to toothpaste without triclosan. Additionally, there are some antibacterial additives in soaps that are not subject to the FDA’s recent ruling. Many companies have replaced the banned ingredients, like triclosan, with one of these three not banned ingredients, and the FDA has granted these companies another year to demonstrate these additives are safe and effective.

Handwashing is like a do-it-yourself vaccine,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Washing with plain soap and water has been shown to reduce bacterial presence on hands by 82%, and studies upon studies point to the beneficial health impacts of washing with plain soap. Clearly the chemical properties of plain soap and its tendency for increasing handwashing time are enough to dramatically increase the health of consumers without adding antibacterial compounds. So, while the FDA has banned household soaps containing many common antibacterial ingredients, handwashing with plain soap will remain a cornerstone of public health and should continue to be a major part of your daily hygiene.

Gabriel W. Rangel is a Ph.D. candidate in the Biological Sciences in Public Health Program at Harvard University. 

For more information:

Official Ruling with List of Banned Chemicals

CDC’s Handwashing “Show Me the Science”

 

Cover image from the US Department of Agriculture

18 thoughts on “Say Goodbye to Antibacterial Soaps: Why the FDA is banning a household item

  1. Regular hand washing is one of the best ways to remove germs and avoid getting sick. It also prevents the spread of germs to others. Many diseases and conditions are spread by not washing hands with soap and clean running water.

  2. I don’t like the fact that the FDA is making this decision for me. Antibacterial soaps containing triclosan or triclocarbon are the only products that have kept my skin clear. I suppose if you have hundreds or even thousands of dollars to spend at the dermatologist, this is no big deal to you. It doesn’t make sense that you can put it in your mouth but not on your body.

    1. Kim, if u need antibacterial soap then u need to find someone like myself that makes natural soap and they add honey to their Cokd Process Soap. Honey contains natural antibacterial, antifungal & antioxidant properties along w many vitamins that are good for ur skin as well. If u have any questions feel free to contact me at sandymontes_48@yahoo.com and I’ll help u as much as possible. I’m thankful their pulling the stuff from the shelves, if UD write down all the ingredients in soap & shampoos and then looked them up u wouldn’t believe the poison uve been using on ur body. But it’d all make sense to u why there’s so much disease and cancer. Anyway holler if u need questions answered I’ll help as much as possible. Sandra

    2. I totally agree, it is a shame that the one thing i use to clear my skin cetaphil antibacterial face bar, is now banned. It’s even what my dermatologist told me to use and now they’re banning it?! Absolutely bull****. The soaps have been around for years without any problems, don’t fix something that isn’t broke.

    3. Yes, I agree that it doesn’t make sense that you can put it in your mouth but not on your skin. I use the Colgate Total Clean Mint that has the Triclosan and have good dental checks. However, since they took Triclosan out of the soap, Safeguard, that I used for decades, I am now battling infections on both of my legs that I never had before. I am an elderly woman and I wonder if the FDA even considered what banning this ingredient would do to not only hand washing, but whole body washing!!! It’s easy to wash your hands for an extended period of time, not so easy on other areas of your body!!! I’m very upset that the FDA has decided for me that I cannot, at my advanced age, use a product I need… I would not be surprised if nursing homes, other care facilities and other people like me, begin having skin issues and infections they never had before. It is a shame and I guess there’s nothing I can do about it. At the very least, why couldn’t they make the product still available by prescription even, where a physician would advise a patient as to it’s use.

      As I said at the outset, it doesn’t make sense that you can put it in your mouth, but not as an also necessary ingredient for maintaining healthy skin care as well.

  3. Hmmm very interesting study i may have to second guess my antibacterial soap that i currently use, and start going the all natural route.

  4. which ingredients could corrode taps and radiators in the home if splashed onto these and not washed off with water

  5. This means that if you are washing your hands with antibacterial soap, you are exposing yourself and the environment to increased amounts of these chemicals without any measurable benefit.

  6. None of this is in the News. Instead, we have to listen to daily news about sex scandals, shootings… I think this is quite newsworthy, as most human beings use soap daily. It would be refreshing ( no pun intended) to listen to a News Story that actually “helps and informs” people, most of which use soap daily ( in some form or fashion). I would write the News agencies, but my experience has taught me they never listen, unless it is salacious. God Bless America.

  7. I will testify to the efficacy of the triclosan added to bar soap. I have used it for at least 2 decades to control boil breakouts I am prone to get. After using the first bar of the “new” formula I suddenly had a boil develop. I was so surprised after so many years without an incident. I looked at the Safeguard package and noticed it no longer said antibacterial. I called and learned the formula changed.
    Hey FDA, contact me about its usefulness. It works, well worked before this ridiculous ruling.

  8. This is completely disheartening that the FDA has made a half-hazard decision. If you ban it on the skin you should ban it in your mouth and also in hospitals and EVERYWHERE! This is outrageous. I’ve had adult cystic acne since I was 25 years old. Not only that I’ve had other skin conditions including “seborrheic dermatitis”, “rosacea”, “lichen planus”, and a host of other strange skin conditions. I’ve been to about 2 dozen dermatologists and finally one doctor told me to buy the Cetaphil Antibacterial Soap and I’ve been using it since! It took care of my facial cystic acne and also my body acne. This is a very horrific day for people that suffer from skin diseases. The FDA does not understand how serious this is for acne sufferers, especially when there IS NO CURE FOR ACNE! Why can’t they make it prescribed at least through your doctor? I’m so sickened by the FDA and others making decisions for me for us and for everyone! I just found out about this when i ran out of my soap I’ve been using and tried to find it but can’t now. BRING IT BACK or allow Doctors to Prescribe it! Your a bunch of fools for doing this when there are so many other dangerous things out there that need more attention. Nobody has been hurt by this , I’ve been using it since i was 25 and now i’m 45 years old, so I’ve been using this for 20 years without any issues! Stop
    this nonsense now and un-ban something that has helped me and others, why hasn’t someone come and asked my opinion on how it saved my skin, life, etc!?!? I was so embarrassed with my cystic facial and body acne and don’t know how i’m going to survive the embarrassing and painful breakouts now. Go ban something that is truly hurting people, this is helping people! This is in the same category as Pluto being banned as a planet! Bring them both back, COME ON with all this silliness!

  9. These people kniw nothing about antibacterial ingredients. Tricolsan products is all I can use due to a condition I have. I cannot whatsoever use plain soap on my body. Regular soap DOES NOT kill bacteria! If I use regualr soap my condition flares! I am so angry I cannot but my soap/bodywash anymore. It is a struggle to find what I need now. All the FDA did was shut up complainers!

  10. I second what all of the other users of the Cetaphil Antibacterial soap have stated. Years and years or trying different things. Finally found the one thing that worked and they take it away. I am pissed.

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