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Mae Wu’s Blog

Finding Safe and Effective Soaps

Mae Wu

Posted March 31, 2010 in Health and the Environment

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Just got an email from my husband - he’s heading home early from work because he’s got a cold.  Which means that I’ve got to be vigilant to avoid catching his cold, so I’m going to be washing my hands all the time. 

But what I’m not going to do is buy tubs of “antibacterial” soap.  For one thing, there’s no one looking out for us to make sure that “antibacterial” soaps are safe and effective.  I bet many people who buy these products assume that they are regulated by some government agency.

Wrong.

Check the back of any antibacterial soap that you can buy at the store.  Chances are the active ingredient is either “triclosan” or “triclocarban” – antimicrobial chemicals that are used in the vast majority of liquid soaps, as well as in other products like body wash, detergent, toothpaste, and cosmetics. 

The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) job is to make sure that “drugs” that are on the market are both safe and effective.  Products that make claims like “antibacterial” fall into that category, and if a chemical is not found to be safe and effective, it can’t be sold on the market.

Back in 1978, FDA proposed a regulation, determining that triclosan and triclocarban were not safe nor effective in soaps, and would therefore not be permitted on the market once the regulation was finalized.  But nothing happened.  In 1994, FDA published a new proposed regulation that again, when finalized, would not have permitted these chemicals to be in soaps. Again, FDA did nothing.  We are now 32 years out, we are spending a billion dollars a year on these products and they are everywhere. And still, FDA not finalized its proposed rules that would take triclosan and triclocarban out of these products. While we wait for FDA to finalize the rule, though, these chemicals can be sold on the market unregulated. 

The real kicker is that these products are neither safe nor effective.  Studies have shown that the "antibacterial" soaps are no more effective than using regular soap and water.  One study saw that people in households using an “antibacterial” bar soap had a similar risk of respiratory infections compared to those using regular soap.

Also, triclosan and triclocarban have been shown to interfere with hormones.  Because hormones work at very low levels, a very small amount of triclosan or triclocarban can disrupt important stages of development, especially in fetuses, infants and children. Plus, it’s possible that the use of these products is contributing to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance.

[UPDATE: Check out the most recent factsheet here.]

We have all these “antibacterial” soap products on the shelves that are no more effective than regular soap and water, and which may cause some serious health problems.  And the agency that is supposed to protect us hasn’t found the time in 32 years to do something about it.  This proposed regulation is old enough to vote. Is FDA going to wait until it’s old enough to get an AARP membership before doing something about it?  I hope not.  But in the meantime, be careful when you’re buying soap for your family – and don’t assume that the government is watching out for you.  

[UPDATE: For a partial listing of products that contain triclosan and triclocarban, check out this database from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.]

Me? I am going to stick with regular old soap and keep washing my hands. And maybe make some chicken soup tonight.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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