In response to questions about the safety of antibacterial soaps, the FDA issued a ban on 19 antibacterial chemicals used in consumer products in September 2016. Companies had one year from the day of the ban to remove the banned substances from their products or pull them from the shelves, much to the approval of public health officials.
But what does this mean for you? While health officials and the FDA have long questioned the safety of antibacterial products, millions of Americans use them on a daily basis, believing these products provide better protection against diseases and germs than plain soap and water. Given all the conflicting information available, it can be hard to do something as basic as shop for a hand soap for your bathroom. Here are six myths you might believe about antibacterial products.
Myth #1: Antibacterial soap is necessary.
When faced with a germy mess, it may seem more effective to use antibacterial soap to wash your hands. After all, killing germs sounds much healthier than simply washing them away. However, in 2013, when the FDA started to question the use of antibacterial chemicals, they challenged the industry to demonstrate that antibacterial soaps are more effective at killing or eliminating germs than simply washing with soap and water. The industry failed. Research has shown time and again that washing your hands for 20 seconds or more with regular soap and running water is effective for eliminating germs.
Furthermore, studies have shown that triclosan, the dominant antibacterial ingredient in most soaps, actually takes longer to kill germs than the length of time people generally take to wash their hands. So, it might kill germs, but it usually doesn’t get a chance to do so.
Myth #2: Antibacterial chemicals are safe.
Public health officials have become increasingly concerned about the effects of chemicals used to kill germs in antibacterial products. As consumer use of antibacterial products has skyrocketed, exposure to these chemicals has dramatically increased. However, testing had not yet been done related to the long-term effects of exposure to these chemicals. We now know that triclosan, specifically, has been found in breastmilk, urine, blood, in newborn babies, in the soil and in the water. Absorbed through the skin, triclosan has been found to disrupt hormones and damage the reproductive system in both children and adults.
Other ill effects such as muscle weakness and damage to the immune system have also been identified. Coupled with widespread use by the public of chemical-laden antibacterial soaps and cleansers, these effects have been magnified significantly. The world – and your body – is made up of chemicals, but not every chemical combination does your body good.
Myth #3: Antibacterial soaps don’t influence antibacterial resistance.
The growth of superbugs – bacteria that are resistance to available antibiotics – has exploded recently. In January 2017, a woman in Nevada died from a bacterial infection that doctors had no ability to control with available antibiotics. These bugs are becoming more and more prevalent, not to mention deadlier. Use of antibacterial products like hand soaps has shown to dramatically increase the rate of mutation by bacteria, contributing to the development of superbugs and highly resistant bacteria in general.
When we wash our hands with antibacterial soap, the chemicals are also released into the water supply, contributing to bacterial mutation at yet another source. These chemicals also harm aquatic life when they leech into the waterways.
With few options to fight antibacterial resistance, public health officials have long cautioned the overuse of prescription antibiotics. It seems that the very soap we’ve been washing our hands with is also a major contributor to this problem. Once bacterial mutations move beyond our ability to treat and attack bacterial infections, there is no turning back. Preventing bacterial resistance is the best way to ensure the effectiveness of our existing medications, and banning unnecessary and harmful antibacterial chemicals is a powerful step in the right direction.
Myth #4: Everyone has to stop using antibacterial products.
While the FDA banned the use of antibacterial chemicals in certain consumer products, the ban does not apply to healthcare or food service settings. In general, use of antibacterial products in professional settings isn’t as dangerous as it is in the general public. Banning consumer products from containing certain chemicals has a much more dramatic impact on the overall negatives associated with antibacterial product use. Rest assured, we all want to visit doctors and restaurants without fear of cross-infection from staff or other patrons. The FDA ban won’t affect this.
Myth #5: All antibacterial products have been banned.
Major chemicals used in consumer products have been banned, but exceptions exist. First, products that are made of at least 60% alcohol to kill germs are not affected by the ban. Alcohol was not on the banned substance list, and products with this concentration of alcohol still kill germs. Most commercial hand sanitizers fall into this category.
Toothpaste that uses antibacterial chemicals is also still allowed, as these companies successfully demonstrated that the bacterial killing effect in toothpaste outweighed the disadvantages. Bacteria in the mouth have been linked to gingivitis and other dental health issues, and antibacterial chemicals in commercial toothpaste do address these problems.
While the FDA ban applies specifically to soaps and other similar products, other consumer products that contain antibacterial chemicals will not be affected by the ban. These include a wide range of everyday products, such as brushes, sponges, children’s toys, keyboards, socks and even underwear. If you’re concerned about exposure to these banned chemicals, choose carefully when buying products labeled “antibacterial” or “antimicrobial.”
Myth #6: This is the first ban of its kind.
America isn’t the first to ban antibacterial products. A number of antibacterial chemicals, especially triclosan, have been banned in Europe and other parts of the world for several years now. The EU placed a general ban on triclosan in 2015, but the FDA and EPA declined to follow suit at the time.
Antibacterial soaps seem appealing, especially when cold and flu season hit, but they provide a false sense of security when it comes to reducing germs and preventing infections from spreading. These products haven’t been shown to be effective, and in many cases, they can be more dangerous to your heath than the bacteria they claim to kill.
Instead, follow proper handwashing guidelines to get rid of germs and keep you and your family safe. Using running water and regular soap, scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds, which is about how long it takes to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice. Make sure you rub all areas of your hands, front and back, and rinse completely with running water when you’re done. Dry your hands thoroughly with a clean towel or air dry. This simple act will dramatically improve both your own personal health and the health of the general public.