Sinister Suds: FDA Fears Your Soap May Be Bad for You

The FDA wants soap manufacturers to prove antimicrobial chemicals are safe—or else take them out of household products.

anit-bacterial is bad

(Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Solvej Schou writes regularly for TakePart, and has also contributed to the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, BBC.com, and Entertainment Weekly.

Like many Americans, I have for years used antibacterial liquid soap to wash my hands. A brightly colored container of it is in my kitchen, and another one is in my bathroom. I use the stuff all the time, convinced by marketing that “antibacterial” means more effective.

Today I’m throwing both bottles away.

On Monday the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a proposed rule requiring soap manufacturers to provide more substantial data to show the safety and effectiveness over plain soap of consumer antibacterial, antimicrobial, and antiseptic soaps used with water or to take those antibacterial elements out of products. The agency says new data suggests the risks of long-term daily use of antibacterial soaps could outweigh the benefits, and more studies need to be done.

“Antibacterial” refers to added chemical ingredients such as triclosan, which has been associated with negative hormonal changes in animal studies, according to the FDA, and to increased bacterial resistance. Hand wipes and hand sanitizers such as Purell, mostly ethyl alcohol based, are not covered under the rule.

In other words, that milky white plain bar of soap used back in the day is just as effective, and possibly much safer, than its antimicrobial equivalent.

“There’s a lot more of an increased focus and much needed concern over the public’s exposure to antibiotics and antibacterial products,” says Dr. Soniya Gandhi, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Just in the past five years of my own experience, as a doctor, there are more resistant strains of bacteria in younger, healthier patients.”

Though cause-and-effect are difficult to scientifically establish, says Gandhi, possible factors affecting this increase in bacterial resistance, such as the widespread modern-day use of antibacterial products, the consumption of antibiotic-filled meat and milk, and the over-prescribing of antibiotics, can’t be ignored.

Thursday’s proposed rule follows the FDA’s mega decision last week to curb the use of antibiotics in cows, chickens, and pigs raised for meat. While the antibacterial soap industry has claimed that animal studies don’t necessarily equal the same outcome for humans, the FDA’s call for more data is a good first step, says Gandhi, and could lead to public policy limiting triclosan.

The chemical has been linked in studies to a higher incidence of seasonal allergies, triggering more severe allergic reaction to food and to pollens, as well as endocrine (hormone) destruction in animals in nature and in the lab, says Patrick Allard, environmental scientist, toxicologist, geneticist, and assistant professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.

Down the line, if chemical ingredients aren’t removed, we could start seeing problems with decreased fertility, and an uptick in thyroid problems and breast cancer, but more data needs to be produced over years, he says.

“The FDA and EPA have had their hands tied for a long time, and I’m glad they’re doing something,” says Allard. “There are two sides of the story, though. The industry will go up in arms and say there’s no proven effect, and they’re right."

But proving harm shouldn't have to come before deciding if something actually helps.

"At the same time, if something in our environment doesn’t have a major benefit, with triclosan, since the molecules of regular soap already destroy lipid membranes, which is what bacteria is made of as well, then why would we add triclosan and have a negative effect 20 years down the line?” Allard asked.

Rolf Halden, a sustainability scientist and the director of the Center for Environmental Security at Arizona State University, echoes that sentiment.

“It’s hard to assess the worst-case scenario and to quantify the final impact,” he says. “But what can be stated from a public health perspective is that we should not expose people to harmful chemicals." 

And the problem doesn't end in our homes.

"Everyone seems to be exposed. We’ve created massive exposure not just for humans but for wildlife, animals, and our environment,” said Halden.

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