The FDA's latest ruling on antibacterial soap has finally confirmed what many people have suspected for quite some time: They aren't any better at killing bacteria than conventional soap.
Many people choose to purchase soaps and body washes that bear the "antibacterial" claim, under the false belief that these products will somehow be better for their families. But, the truth is that these products offer no benefits, and may actually increase your risk of being infected by an antibiotic-resistant strain of bacteria.
The first antibacterial soap was presented by the Dial corporation in the 1940s. It contained an ingredient known as hexachlorophene – a chemical never fully established as a germicidal agent. In the 1970s, Dial was ordered to stop using this chemical because it was causing brain damage in infants.
Not long after, in 1984, triclosan entered the marketplace and changed the soap game for 30 years. Triclosan was the first patented antibacterial agent for use in soap. Unfortunately, it too has been found to create a number of adverse health effects. Studies have shown that triclosan can negatively affect the immune system and alter hormone regulation. Triclosan has also been associated with impeding the function of muscle tissue, such as reducing contraction in both skeletal and cardiac muscle tissue. Recent research indicates that the chemical has the ability to contribute to both heart disease and heart failure.
It's important to note that extreme amounts of triclosan were not used. The study's lead author, Dr. Isaac Pessah – who is a professor and chair of the Department of Molecular Biosciences at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine – states that they only exposed cells to amounts of the chemical that would be similar to average daily exposure. The team also found that in mice, exposure to triclosan reduced heart function by 25 percent and grip strength by 18 percent. And that was just within an hour of exposure – imagine what could happen over the course of a lifetime!
The toxicity of triclosan is not terribly surprising, given that it also used in pesticides. If it kills other living things, there's a pretty good chance that it isn't going to be all that great for humans either.
Beyond the ingredient's potential for harm, the FDA says that after reviewing the data, it seems as though there is no actual benefit from using antibacterial soaps, and that they don't prevent illness any better than regular soap. The Mayo Clinic's infectious diseases specialist, Dr. Pritish Tosh, boasts similar sentiments. Dr. Tosh stated, "There is no evidence that adding antibacterial material to products have any improvement in the detergent's effect of the soap." Tosh posits that it appears that the addition of the word "antibacterial" to product labels is truly nothing more than a cheap marketing tactic.
Dr. Tosh continued to point out that the growing problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a very real threat, and antibacterial soaps can contribute to the proliferation of drug-resistant organisms. He notes, "[T]he more antibiotics we use, the more we are contributing to the growing issue of antibiotic drug resistance," and adds that in addition to antibacterial soap's lack of superiority over regular soap, the use of such products actually has the potential to be harmful, by way of perpetuating the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and other specimens.
The FDA's new ruling will only be applied to antibacterial soaps and body washes that contain triclosan or one of the other 19 active antibacterial agents that are often used in its place. Hand sanitizers, sanitary wipes and antibacterial soaps for use in hospitals and nursing homes will not be affected by the ban.