Scientists Sound Alarm on Antibacterial Soap

washing hands with soap and water
Wash your hands before handling food to help spread the contamination of salmonella. (Photo: hxdbzxy/Shutterstock)

More than 200 scientists and health professionals published a statement that outlined several concerns about two common ingredients in antibacterial soap, triclosan and triclocarban. These chemicals end up in the environment, are a source of toxic and carcinogenic compounds and have been detected in a "wide variety of matrices worldwide," the group wrote.

Triclosan exposure has been linked to an increased sensitivity to allergens, according to the group, which also called for warning labels on any product that contains those chemicals.

This follows in the footsteps of a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruling on Sept. 2, 2016, that banned 19 specific chemicals in liquid and bar soaps, including triclosan (commonly used in liquid soap) and triclocarban (used in bar soap). The agency says manufacturers have not shown that these products are any more effective than plain soap and water in preventing illness or stopping the spread of certain infection. In addition, there is some evidence that some of these ingredients could lead to problems such as bacterial resistance or hormonal effects, according to the FDA.

"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," Janet Woodcock, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said in a statement. "In fact, some data suggests that antibacterial ingredients may do more harm than good over the long-term."

Manufacturers have until September to either remove these ingredients from their products or take the products off the market. The rule doesn't apply to hand sanitizers or wipes, or antibacterial products used in health care settings.

Many companies had already started phasing out these ingredients after the FDA issued a proposed rule in 2013 that required manufacturers to provide additional data on the safety and effectiveness of certain ingredients in the antibacterial products.

The FDA encourages people to use plain soap and water instead.

“Following simple handwashing practices is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of many types of infection and illness at home, at school and elsewhere,” says Michele. “We can’t advise this enough. It’s simple, and it works.”