Scientists Call for Stricter Limits on Antimicrobial Chemicals in Household Products

Public Domain. Max Pixel

Triclosan may have been banned in soap, but antimicrobials are still allowed in more than 2,000 other products, which is a big problem.

The label “antibacterial” appears on everything from personal care products to cutting boards to clothing. It appeals to many people’s sense of hygiene, wanting to believe that ‘bad’ bacteria will be inhibited, but the truth is that the antibacterial chemicals added to consumer products are harmful to health, disruptive to the human reproductive system, and persistent in the environment.

In September 2016, the Food and Drug Administration issued a ban on triclosan, triclocarban, and 16 other antimicrobial chemicals in hand soaps, but this didn’t go far enough for many scientists. Now, more than 200 researchers have joined together to call for tighter limits on the uses of antimicrobial chemicals, outlined in a formal statement published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The Florence Statement makes the following recommendations:

1. Avoid the use of triclosan, triclocarban, and other antimicrobial chemicals except where they provide an evidence-based health benefit (e.g., physician-prescribed toothpaste for treating gum disease) and there is adequate evidence demonstrating they are safe.

2. Where antimicrobials are necessary, use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems.

3. Label all products containing triclosan, triclocarban, and other antimicrobials, even in cases where no health claims are made.

4. Evaluate the safety of antimicrobials and their transformation products throughout the entire product life cycle, including manufacture, long-term use, disposal, and environmental release.

You might be surprised where antimicrobial chemicals appear. The Environmental Working Group, a supporter of the statement, has a detailed Guide to Triclosan on its website that includes odd places such as credit cards, cell phones, tablecloths, household fabrics, playground equipment, socks, building materials, and many more. Its Skin Deep database identifies personal care products that contain triclosan.

While some manufacturers have introduced alternative chemicals in the wake of the FDA ban, there are concerns about the safety of these, too. From a press release:

“Since the FDA's ban last year, many brands have switched to different additives, but there is evidence the replacement chemicals are no safer. The FDA is continuing to closely review the safety of antibacterial chemicals known as quats, including benzalkonium chloride, which are also used in some hand sanitizers.”

The best approach is to steer clear of anything with antimicrobial properties, unless absolutely necessary. Plain soap and water does just as good a job at killing bacteria, and is much safer, so it’s best to stick with that.