FDA ban on antibacterial soap is good, but what about everything else?

Spa Soap antibacterial
CC BY 2.0 Mike Mozart

While the FDA's new ban is good news, there are many other personal care products, including cosmetics, toothpastes, detergents, deodorants, and fragrances, that can still use antibacterial chemicals.

It is time to say goodbye to antibacterial hand wash. The popular product will no longer exist by this time next year, thanks to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s recent announcement that “over-the-counter consumer antiseptic hand products” and antibacterial body washes can no longer be marketed, citing potential health risks and bacterial infection. All products containing one or more of 19 specific active ingredients, including triclosan and triclocarban, must be removed or reformulated within one year.

The announcement is a reason to celebrate, particularly among environmental protection and public health groups that have long advocated for triclosan to be banned. The chemical is a known endocrine disruptor that has demonstrated in animal studies to weaken heart muscle function, alter the shape of sperm, impair brain development, and contribute to bone deformation. Indeed, TreeHugger has long written about the potentially harrowing effects of triclosan and advocated for an end to its use. (See Lloyd’s great roundup of articles, titled “There’s a frog disruptor in my soap.”)

What’s strange, however, is that the FDA has banned triclosan only in hand and body washes – products that are “intended for use with water, and are rinsed off after use.”

The ban feels oddly incomplete, leading one to wonder about all the other things that still can contain ingredients such as triclosan. Take toothpaste, for example. Colgate Total contains triclosan and is touted by maker Colgate-Palmolive as “the only toothpaste approved by the FDA to help fight plaque and gingivitis.” And yet, despite the fact that it goes directly into one’s mouth, where chemicals are more easily absorbed than on the surface of the skin, it is unaffected by the FDA’s ban.

Beyond Pesticides explains that the regulation of triclosan falls under the jurisdiction of both the FDA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):

“Triclosan uses that fall under FDA’s jurisdiction include hand soaps, toothpastes, deodorants, laundry detergents, fabric softeners, facial tissues, antiseptics for wound care, and medical devices. Triclosan use in textiles and plastics is overseen by EPA and these products are not allowed to make any public health claims. Triclosan is currently being reviewed by EPA with a decision expected in 2020.”

Countless other products still contain triclosan, despite the ban on hand washes.

Quartz reports: “The rule does not affect any other products containing triclosan, which include cosmetics, shaving creams, and even some toothpastes. It doesn’t impact the hand sanitizers and sanitizing wipes that have become ubiquitous in offices, homes, and hanging off the backpacks of commuters worried about catching pathogens from their bus seats. The FDA has said it still needs more information on those before making any final rulings.”

You can find a lengthy list of products containing triclosan and triclocarban (separate lists) from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Household Products Database. Available from Beyond Pesticides is another rather surprising list that includes office and school products, kitchenware, household appliances, first aid products, even clothing.

Beyond Pesticides points out that many companies are bowing to consumer pressure and quietly reformulating their products, but certain retail outlets could still stock old formulations. Check ingredient lists carefully and stay away from anything advertising “microbial protection.”

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