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

33 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.

      1. I think it’s still here in Jacksonville,fla I will check today now I am curious I saw some last month.

    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.

    4. It took me 20 years to discover a cure for my acne…..triclosan soap have kept me blemish free for over a year, now it’s banned….I wonder if dermatologist had anything to do with this…..they’ll be the only ones benefiting from people not having a home remedy for their skin problems…

  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.

    1. I think it’s still here in Jacksonville,fla I will check today now I am curious I saw some last month.

  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!

    1. I too have several skin problems. The only thing that has kept me from photo therapy treatments three times a week was cetaphil soap. I can’t believe it was discontinued. I have suffered from boils, at least 8 biopsies it took over three years, three hospitalizations almost lost my life to skin infections. What patients who used this soap did anyone ask?

  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.

  11. I recently read the Abstract and Summary of an article published at the U.S. National Library of Medicines Web Site, National Institutes of Health, J Food Prot. 2007 Dec;70(12):2873-7.

    The article was entitled ”Effect of hand wash agents on controlling the transmission of pathogenic bacteria from hands to food.”

    The findings of that study included the statement “The data thus demonstrate there is a greater potential to reduce the transmission and acquisition of disease through the use of an antimicrobial hand wash than through the use of plain soap.”

    Those findings appear to contradict the gist of this article which is “there has been no conclusive evidence to suggest household antibacterial soaps are an improvement over non-antibacterial soaps.” Further … “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.”

    It is the opinion of this writer that until the 2007 study is discredited one should, for purposes of personal hygiene and washing, use antibacterial hand soaps that are designed for and marketed towards home use.

  12. I am a 47 Year Young Male who’s Dermatologist recommended Cetaphil Gentle Cleansing Antibacterial Soap Bar to resolve random, embarrassing and painful boils on my face, chest and shoulders. I was skeptical after having tried countless products including “Retin-A”. I was willing to try the Cetaphil product based on the recommendation of a new dermatologist who seemed to know his business, not to mention he uses (used) the product for his own skincare. Well, this was over 20 years ago. It wasn’t one week and I noticed not only the complete elimination of facial and body boils, but my skin looked and felt younger, cleaner and more vibrant. Since the ban on this product, I naturally started using Cetaphil Gentle Cleansimg Bar and even tried Cetaphil Deep Cleansimg Bar. Within one week a boil broke out, my skin started showing signs of unexplained redness and the pores on my face became highly visible. I have to also say how ticked I am at Cetaphil for not announcing this product elimination, which put me on a wild goose chase for several weeks chasing the product down. Nearly every retailer who once sold this product, all told me that the Antibacterial Bar was on backorder and to check back. After a few weeks of that I realized something was wrong. I still check the Cetaphil section every time I am ina retail center who supports Cetaphil and am happy to report that their Deep and Gentle Cleansimg Bars are not leaving the shelves. See what happens when shareholders of Cetaphil realize the drop in sales and the eventual lowered stock value. Thanks for protecting your customer base Cetaphil! During the one year period where you had an opportunity to demonstrate that your antibacterial product was in fact superior to non-antibacterial products by surveying why your customers use your product. Would these countless cases of your customers suffering through this change have not been enough to show the almighty FDA that there are those who benefit from these supposed caustic and harmful chemicals and without them, we digress. Shame on The FDA, shame on Cetaphil and shame on the outlandish bureaucracy of the system! If anyone finds an alternate solution, God Bless You in advance for writing. Thank you! Jeremy

    1. Same here, my ID doctor recommended Cetaphil Antibacterial Bar for the reoccurring painful boils problem(suffering since 10 years), that totally made my skin clear, now I ran out of the soap In February and searched about 25 retail stores in by neighborhood with no success, I’m disappointed. One last ray of hope is Ebay, it’s available on Ebay e-commerce website in limited quantities, so please go ahead, order from there and stock them up. I just ordered 10 items of 3-packs, that will take me through 3 years, hope some new solution would come up in the future for the boils problem.

  13. Has anyone heard anything about boric acid? I wouldn’t be surprised if they tried to ban that as well since no one can patent it. It’s always about money. Without antibacterial soaps they can keep prescribing more antibiotics, which also, by the way, can cause bacteria to mutate and thus creating a race of “super bacteria”.

  14. There have to be more to this…..the one thing all acne suffers can testify actually works they go and ban it….maybe dermatologist had something to do with this…..now we’re back at their mercy…..

  15. Has anyone tried the new antibacterial soaps that companies are making now? I’m curious to see if they help those with dreaded skin conditions. Thanks so much!

    1. YES! Used these soaps for several months, but had to stop using them because they dried my skin out so bad i itched all the time, caused more skin issues than before i used them, now i’m left using regular Aveeno soap, all my skin issues went away except for my cystic acne, sheborric dermatitis, and lichen planus…the cetaphil kept those at bay, but now since I cannot get the cetaphil antibacterial soap AND the NEWER antibacterial soaps are TOO HARSH, i’m left to and back to taking amoxicillian pills, using ketocotazole creams and shampoos daily, and dealing with this horrible issue. Don’t know what studies they did, but clearly DID NOT do these studies on humans who are suffering from these horrific skin issues…probably used lab animals which do not relate to human skin conditions. I’m sick and tired of people telling others on what they can and cannot do. Just plain stupid. Like another said, why can’t they make it a prescription by your doctor now??? Instead they totally got rid of it…if that’s the case, why not get rid of ALL antibiotics. Dumb

  16. After using a bar of Dial soap containing triclocarbon, I got a bacterial infection in the genitals. My doctor said we have a balance down there, just like we do in our GI tract. It took five rounds of antibiotic to clear two bad bacteria, one of which had mutated. I am otherwise healthy. It’s been miserable and I’m not back to normal yet. I’m glad this ingredient is being removed.

    1. The newer antibacterial dial soap is horrid…I stupidly bought several of them thinking it would be banned, then went through two of the bars, dried my skin out so bad it caused manic itching…had to stop using it, now i have a drawer full of that stupid Dial triclocarbon soap that i don’t know what to do with. Nope, did nothing for me, i’m slowly now just using for hand soap, but still is pretty darn harsh. It’s truly too bad since many people suffer from true skin issues and some are chronic before using antibiotics, and people with these issues do not understand and will never understand, people making a fuss about superbacteria. But if they had these horrific conditions they wouldn’t care, they would be using this soap because it’s better to take a chance of building superbacteria than to live with horrific skin issues your whole life. What a real shame for those who truly need this.

  17. I’m not a doctor, but I do know some science (retired science teacher with AB in biology and MAT in science education).
    My daughter developed a severe swelling and itching of her genital area about 16 years ago which couldn’t be explained or helped by local doctors. She went on vacation to a “less developed” area where they didn’t have chemicals in the soap. Her swelling immediately improved greatly. She looked closely at her soap at home and it had triclosan. Turns out she either had an allergy to triclosan, or had an explosion of triclosan-resistant bacteria. She changed to regular simple soap and has been problem-free since.
    With my scientific background, I’d like to suggest that the commenters who have boils, etc. may have set themselves up by using triclosan-containing soap, which paved the way for those “super-bacteria” to thrive. Now they’re throwing more chemicals at their problem. About 65 years ago, my brother had boils when he was about age 9, and somehow he got rid of them without triclosan…there must be other ways!
    My local stores are still carrying soap with this chemical, and my 80+ age husband won’t read the labels. I just sent him back to the store to return three bars of the stuff. GRRRRR!!!

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