Government regulation to the rescue: FDA halts the overuse of antibacterial soaps

Over the past two decades, anti-bacterial soaps have proliferated. It got to the point, a couple of years ago, where it was difficult to find any hand-washing products in some stores that were not labeled "antibacterial." All the way back in 2001, a study by Eli Perencevich and colleagues found that 76% of liquid soaps on the market contained some kind of antibacterial agent. It only got worse after that.

The primary active ingredients in most of these soaps are triclosan and triclocarban, chemical agents that do indeed kill bacteria. However, as Perencevich pointed out,
"No scientific data have been published to suggest that the use of antibacterial agents in household products prevents infection."
It didn't take long for triclosan to start showing up in freshwater streams and elsewhere in the environment. Triclosan has been detected in the water supply in the U.S., multiple countries in Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan, and Hong Kong. As use of antibacterial soaps proliferated, bacteria resistant to triclosan started to appear–an outcome that any biologist could have predicted, and that many did.

After many years, the FDA finally announced, in December 2013, that manufacturers needed to produce actual data showing that their products worked. They didn't, for the simple reason that antibacterial soaps don't work any better than plain old soap and water.

Finally, this past Friday, the FDA stepped in. They are banning 19 different chemicals, including triclosan. Their announcement states:
"Companies will no longer be able to market antibacterial washes with these ingredients because manufacturers did not demonstrate that the ingredients are both safe for long-term daily use and more effective than plain soap and water in preventing illness and the spread of certain infections."
This has been a very long time coming.

Antibacterial soaps are no more effective than simple hand-washing with regular soap, as Forbes contributor David DiSalvo explained last year. But people have been buying these products anyway, often not realizing that they might be hurting themselves and the environment. As Janet Woodcock, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, explained in the FDA announcement:
“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. In fact, some data suggests that antibacterial ingredients may do more harm than good over the long-term.”
Sometimes government regulation is the only effective way to fix a public health problem. Kudos to the FDA for stepping in to protect all of us from potentially deadly outbreaks of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Let's hope that other countries follow the U.S. example.


  1. Steve - great article - what about the use of triclosan in suture? Ethicon is heavily marketing their PDS Plus and Monocryl Plus - which are triclosan treated -'antibacterial' suture. I found the following from a couple of years ago that was very critical of it -
    Annals of Agricultural and Environmental Medicine 2015, Vol 22, No 3, 551–555
    Comparison of antibacterial-coated and non-coated suture material in intraoral surgery by isolation of adherent bacteria
    Klaus Pelz1
    , Ninette Tödtmann2
    , Jörg-Elard Otten2
    1 Institute for Microbiology and Hygiene, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität, Freiburg, Germany
    2 Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg, Freiburg, Germany

    As well as on
    The researcher posed the question - and the 6 responses were that triclosan in sutures was just a pricey gimmick. In light of the FDA ban on soaps - I wonder if this will/should affect the view on suture? Imagine Ethicon marketing fluff or worse and charging a lot of money for it!
    Simon Weiner
    Cleveland, OH

  2. So the best thing to do now is to wash your hands and sanitize in some other way. I always have this small pack of sanitizer in my bag but now that I'm aware of this, I might as well stick to water and soap instead. I should say rubbing alcohol but it may have the same effect as of those with sanitizers.


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