It’s a clear no-go on those “antibacterial” soaps you see on people’s counters and sometimes in our schools. They are soon to vanish from stores. No good evidence the (typically liquid) soaps actually protect our family from bacterial infections better than washing with regular soap and water and there are some concerns the ingredients used to make the soap may pose risk. Because of this, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently announced a ban on chemicals/pesticides used in antibacterial soaps due to safety concerns, including two of the most commonly used ingredients: triclosan and triclocarban. Some of these antibacterial soaps will still be used in hospitals.
Consumers may think antibacterial washes are more effective at preventing the spread of germs, but we have no scientific evidence that they are any better than plain soap and water.” ~ Dr. Janet Woodcock, director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation & Research
Some history: Back in 2013 the FDA asked companies that produce antibacterial soaps to prove that their products were more effective than basic soap and water. Turns out, they couldn’t (or didn’t) provide data to show that these products were safe for long-term use nor that they are more effective. We know anytime we add antibiotics into our environment. water, food or agriculture, they kill bacteria off so that bugs that are less treatable with medicines have an easier time surviving. The end result are so-called, “superbugs” or bacteria in our environment and thankfully, rarely in our bodies, that are difficult or impossible to treat. That’s a LOSE-LOSE for humans (and animals). Hence the new ban on these soaps. Companies now must comply with removing the chemicals within 1 year’s time, or take the products off the market. There are 3 chemicals used in some soaps still allowed (not included in the 19 ingredients listed in the FDA ban) that rarely may still be found.
Why We Don’t Want To Use “Antibiotic” Soap
Some bacteria are good (the ones that live in our guts and the ones that live on our skin, for example) and contribute to our microbiome. We want to preserve those as these bacteria protect us, help us break down food, and even support vitamin production. There is also some data that every course of antibiotics we ever take changes this microbiome and may have lasting and long-term effects including susceptibility to chronic disease.
So as part of our wellness relies on these “good” bacteria, part of human wellness also relies on effective antibiotics against the bad ones (for serious infections, surgery, when an immune system is compromised). Clearly, we only want to use antibiotics when necessary; if we overuse them we create environments where resistant bacteria thrive. Once that happens, we won’t be able to cure infections they cause.
What soap we use, what medicines we avoid, what medicines we use, what food we eat and how it’s raised (ideally without antibiotics) all change the game. Antibiotics are among the most commonly prescribed drugs used in human medicine and kill both good and bad bacteria on and in our bodies. Potentially the most shocking statistic I can share is that up to 50% of all the antibiotics prescribed for people are not needed or are not optimally effective as prescribed. There are many experts and movements to reduce the use of unnecessary antibiotics in clinics and hospitals but also remember that the mass tonage of antibiotics used on the planet are in agriculture and when raising livestock.
Two Reminders For Using Soap And Hand Sanitizers
- Regular old soap and water will do the best job at cleaning our hands and protecting our families from disease. The new FDA regulations will get the soaps with unnecessary antibiotic ingredients off the shelves. Ultimately, they provided a false sense of security and have had the potential to mess up our environment. WIN!
- Gel hand sanitizers are okay: Don’t be nervous about continuing to use alcohol-based, gel hand sanitizers. Those are typically made with >60% alcohol and are not considered unsafe nor are they known to cause similar challenges with antibiotic resistance.
- FDA overview
- FDA press release
- Antibiotic Prescriptions for Children: 10 Common Questions Answered
- CDC Antibiotic Resistance
- Seattle Mama Doc Content on Antibiotics
leid Jenkinson says
Hurrah. Finally. But we often don’t teach hand washing to children. At 70, i still remember being taught at home at an early age. Not sure the school system did. There are some amazing studies at public washrooms over the years concerning the number of people who don’t wash or don’t wash properly. Then there are the restroom doors – handles and “push plates”. One major hospital in Seattle has a trash can outside the door so you can use a paper towel to open it and still have somewhere to toss it – but at only some restrooms. To have them at all restrooms would essentially require a redesigned building, or a remodel. That applies to schools. How about Children’s Hospital?
Have you ever tried to buy non-antibacterial soap, liquid or bar types? Some stores have the original Ivory (You know – 99.44% pure and floats?), but not many.
Tim Nicklas says
Be sure to check labels. Triclosan is used in some hand sanitizers, toothpastes, mouthwashes, cosmetics, deodorants, shave gels, etc. Does the FDA ban extend to any of these products?
Dillon LeSieur says
This is an extremely interesting topic. I can remember being in school and my microbiology teacher used plain soap (no antimicrobial properties) in his classrooms. Also, he pushed the college to rid the entire campus of antimicrobial soaps. His reasoning was that antimicrobial soap vs. plain soap showed no benefits. He always said the most important part of hand hygiene is lots of scrubbing. I work in a hospital and recently we had a high rate of hospital acquired infections. The hospital looked to the World Health Organization (WHO) for hand hygiene recommendations. I was reviewing the recommendations and they do not give a preference to plain soap over antimicrobial soap. Also, looking at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) they don’t give a preference to the type of soap used. The CDC and WHO both recommend lots of scrubbing and soap. I like to agree with my microbiology teacher that plain soap should be effective for hand hygiene as long as a person is conducting proper hand hygiene. Antimicrobial agents should only be used if there is evidence of an infection. I am afraid of “super bugs.” Tim, I looked on the FDA website and it appears the ban is only on soaps. I will include the URL if you want to look on the FDA website. This is some interesting information.