By Elizabeth Simmons

Companies have been using the label “antibacterial” in much the same way they use the label “natural.” It’s a way to encourage customers to buy their products because they are perceived as better. However, that’s about to change, as the Food and Drug Administration cracks down on yet another health concern.


On Monday the FDA stated that it is requiring soap manufacturers to prove that the chemicals used to make antibacterial soap are safe. If the companies can’t meet that requirement, the chemicals must be removed from the products.

The chemicals in question, triclosan and triclocarbon, are added to liquid soaps and bar soaps respectively. Formerly only found in soaps used by doctors when scrubbing in, the chemicals found their way into everyday products like soap, toothpaste, mouthwash and laundry detergent.

Many public health experts support the FDA’s requirement to prove safety of the chemicals. They have raised concerns over the possibilities that triclosan and triclocarbon may scramble hormones in children and promote drug-resistant infections. Studies with animals have shown triclosan to be associated with lower levels of thyroid hormone and testosterone. Similar tests with triclocarbon indicated it might artificially amplify the effects of estrogen and testosterone.

Alarming as those findings may be, the idea that antibacterial products could be helping form antibiotic-resistant bacteria is even more startling. According to the CDC, antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest health issues the United States is facing. These bacteria kill more than 60,000 hospitalized patients per year.

Antibacterial chemicals are a nearly unavoidable part of life. Surveys have found triclosan and triclocarbon in more than three-quarters of people age 6 to 65. This is despite the fact the FDA has stated there is currently no evidence that over-the-counter antibacterial soap products are more effective at preventing illness than plain soap and water.

The American Cleaning Institute and the Personal Care Products Council issued a statement defending the safety of antibacterial soaps and other products. “These products are over-the-counter drugs and as such, go through rigorous review by FDA, including review of data and information submitted by industry and health care providers in the U.S. and worldwide.”

According to those organizations, antibacterial soaps are safe and their benefits have been proven to outweigh any risks, and they are going to share those findings with the FDA in compliance with the new rule. “We intend to file comments to FDA reaffirming that the use of antibacterial wash products in the home environment does not contribute to antibiotic or antibacterial resistance.”

No matter which side of the antibacterial issue you’re on, the FDA wants to hear from you. It is encouraging consumers, clinicians, environmental groups, scientists, industry representatives and anyone else with an opinion on the subject to discuss the its new rule. For 180 days, you can chime in on the debate by contacting the FDA through its website.

Also, if all the talk about antibacterial products has you concerned about access to hand sanitizer, there’s no need to worry. The FDA has stated that hand sanitizer will be part of a different consideration. And at the end of the day, there’s still nothing better than washing with soap and warm water while singing your ABCs.

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