FDA: Antibacterial scrubs might be worse than plain soap

Antibacterial soaps are not proven to be more effective than plain soap and water and might have some negative side-effects, the FDA said Monday. It is calling for an investigation.

Kiichiro Sato/AP/File
Dawn Ultra antibacterial soap contains the ingredient triclosan. The Food and Drug Administration said there is no evidence that antibacterial chemicals used in liquid soaps and washes help prevent the spread of germs and there is some evidence they may pose health risks.

The Food and Drug Administration issued a proposal that would require manufacturers to prove that antibacterial soaps and body washes more effectively prevent disease than plain soap and water.

There is currently no evidence that antibacterial soaps are any more effective at preventing illness than washing with plain soap and water, said Colleen Rogers, a lead microbiologist at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in a Monday press release.

In fact, the risk of long-term use of antibacterial soap might outweigh the benefits, according to a Monday announcement from the FDA. There are indications that certain ingredients in these soaps may contribute to bacterial resistance to antibiotics and may have unanticipated hormonal effects that are of concern to the FDA.

This new proposal would not apply to hand sanitizers, hand wipes, or antibacterial soaps used in medical settings. So-called “over the counter” antibacterial soaps contain chemical ingredients that plain soaps do not. One of the most common of these commonly added ingredients is triclosan.

Animals studies have shown that triclosan may alter the way hormones work. The chemical can also contribute to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics, thus making medical treatments less effective, the FDA reported. It is not entirely clear how triclosan affects humans.

The FDA has called for consumers, clinicians, environmental groups, industry representatives, and others to weigh in on the proposed rule. The comment period extends for 180 days.

Before the proposal is finalized, companies will need to provide data to support their claims, or – if they do not – the products will need to be reformulated or relabeled, CNN reported.

Some toothpastes and mouthwashes also contain tricolsan, which has been shown to help prevent the gum disease gingivitis, the FDA said, according to Agence France Presse

The FDA works closely with the Environmental Protection Agency to ensure government-wide consistency in the regulation of triclosan, which is also used as a pesticide.

Last week, the FDA announced new voluntary guidelines for manufacturers to phase out the use of antibiotics in livestock feed. 

The two issues were not directly related but were "part of a larger framework of assuring that there is a well established benefit and risk assessment that can be conducted before these products can be just put out there widely for general use,” said Sandra Kweder, deputy director of the FDA's Office of New Drugs, to AFP.

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