More than 80,000 chemicals are produced and used
in the United States. This is one of their stories.

FDA to soap industry: Prove it or lose it.

America Is Awash in Antibacterial Products

Killing microbes has become a full-time business for those in the business of selling personal hygiene products. There’s antibacterial toothpaste and antimicrobial hand sanitizers andantibacterial soaps. For a good many of these products the antibacterial agent is a chemical known as triclosan — apolychloro phenoxy phenolif you care to know.*More on triclosan in a moment. First let’s look at this whole killing microbes thing. You might think killing germs is always a good thing to do and you’d be wrong.

First Do No Harm

Stopping the spread of germs is roundly recommended by health experts. After all, germs have been adeadly agent for millennia. And so as the science has linked microbes to disease, we have found that good hygiene is key to good health. Not surprisingly then, the mantra of “cleaning your hands” appears among the several ways that the Centers for Disease Control recommends to stop the spread of germs.

But while good hygiene is generally a good thing, it’s also true that sometimes one can have too much of a good thing. A growing body of evidence suggests that our obsession with making our environment antiseptic is causing more harm than good. In fact, regular exposure to a rich soup of microbes — the kind of soup antibacterial soaps put the kibosh on — can be good for our health. (Seehereandhere.) Which brings us to triclosan.

Is Triclosan Safe?

So there are good microbes and bad microbes, and we obviously want exposure to the former and avoidance of the latter, so where does triclosan fit into this cleanliness equation? Before answering that, let’s look at what we know about triclosan. First of all, understand that triclosan is apesticide, regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Federal Insecticide, Rodenticide, and Fungicide Act. That’s right, when you wash yourself with an antibacterial soap containing triclosan, you are washing yourself with a pesticide.

Now, to be fair, there is no definitive proof that triclosan poses significant health risks. But, as discussed in an earlierTheGreenGrok post,theFood and Drug Administrationis concernedthat triclosan may “contribute to bacterial resistance to antibiotics, and may have unanticipated hormonal effects.” (Especially those related to the thyroid.)

Does Triclosan Provide a Health Benefit?

And here’s the kicker. While we’re not sure if triclosan poses any harm to us, what we do know is that washing with an antibacterial may not be any more protective than washing with soap and water. As the CDCputs it, “Antibacterial-containing products have not been proven to prevent the spread of infection better than products that do not contain antibacterial chemicals.” And now the Food and Drug Administration has gone one step further,writingthat“[n]ew data suggest that the risks associated with long-term, daily use of antibacterial soaps may outweigh the benefits.”**

This message has been a long time coming (seehere,here,here andhere): If you use antibacterials for your personal hygiene you are quite possibly exposing yourself to a harmful insecticide for no good reason and that exposure carries risk that soaps without triclosan do not carry. And that’s whya new rule proposed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administrationwould

“require manufacturers of antibacterial hand soaps and body washes to demonstrate that their products are safe for long-term daily use and more effective than plain soap and water in preventing illness and the spread of certain infections.”

With this move the FDA has inched closer to what ultimately may turn out to be a ban on triclosan and similar antibacterials in soaps.

“Under the proposed rule, manufacturers who want to continue marketing antibacterial products will be required to provide the agency with additional data on the products’ safety and effectiveness, including data from clinical studies to demonstrate that these products are superior to non-antibacterial soaps in preventing human illness or reducing infection.” (See entire FDA news release.)

A Small Step for Man and Triclosan

Many will applaud the FDA for finally moving on triclosan, but in fact it is a very, very small and tentative step. Instead of covering the laundry list of products in which triclosan is an agent, from hand wipes and toothpasteto sanitizers to antibacterial soaps used in emergency rooms and other health care settings, the rule “covers onlythose consumer antibacterial soaps and body washes that are used with water.”And theFDA expects that the earliest this rule could be finalized is September 2016.

There is some good news. If you think you’re ready to get some distance between triclosan and your body and the bodies of your family members sooner than 2016, you don’t have to wait for the FDA. Read the labels when you shop. Consider carefully before buying a product labeled as antibacterial, especially if the active ingredient is triclosan. As they say in the chemical marketplace –caveat emptor.


End Notes

* A chemical called triclocarban is the other biggie.

** By the way, if you’re in the habit of using hand sanitizersto keep the flu bug away, think again. Antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizers provide no extra protection because influenza is a virus not a bacterial infection.