Do OTC antibacterial soaps do more harm than good?

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According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), you may be wasting your money when it comes to buying over-the-counter (OTC) antibacterial soaps and body washes. While many believe these products offer better germ fighting capabilities when compared to traditional soap products, research has yet to prove these claims are true and is showing using regular soap and water can be just as effective when it comes to preventing illness and stopping the spread of bacteria.

Furthermore, the wide use of these products over a long period of time has raised the question of potential negative health effects that are still being investigated.

As stated in the FDA’s recent consumer report, the organization issued a rule in 2013 requiring safety and efficacy data from manufacturers, consumers, and others if companies wanted to continue marketing products containing triclosan and triclocarban, two common active ingredients found in antibacterial or antiseptic products.

However, as of now, very little information has been provided and manufacturers have not been able to prove those ingredients are safe for daily use over long periods of time. Also, manufacturers have yet to show that these ingredients are any more effective than plain soap and water in preventing illnesses and the spread of certain infections.

Because of this, the FDA issued a final rule under which OTC consumer antiseptic wash products (including liquid, foam, gel hand soaps, bar soaps, and body washes) containing those active ingredients will no longer be able to be marketed. In fact, some manufacturers have already started removing these ingredients from their products, ahead of the FDA’s final rule.

“There’s no data demonstrating that these drugs provide additional protection from diseases and infections. Using these products might give people a false sense of security,” Theresa M. Michele, MD, of the FDA’s Division of Nonprescription Drug Products, said in the report. “If you use these products because you think they protect you more than soap and water, that’s not correct. If you use them because of how they feel, there are many other products that have similar formulations but won’t expose your family to unnecessary chemicals. And some manufacturers have begun to revise these products to remove these ingredients.”

In addition, many environmental, academic and regulatory groups have provided research that shows triclosan may be a cause for concern.  In fact, animal studies have shown that triclosan alters the way some hormones work in the body and raises potential concerns for the effects of use in humans.

Triclosan can also be found in many other places today—including clothing, kitchenware, furniture, and toys—to prevent bacterial contamination. Because of this overuse and people’s long-term exposure, laboratory studies have also raised the possibility that triclosan contributes to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics.

So what soap or body wash should you purchase next time you’re at the store? The FDA suggests purchasing plain soap and always washing your hands effectively with soap and water.

“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,” Dr. Michele said. “We can’t advise this enough. It’s simple, and it works.”

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