U.S. to outlaw antibacterial soaps | Science News for Students

U.S. to outlaw antibacterial soaps

They’re no better than regular soaps, despite ads and promises that they were
Sep 8, 2016 — 12:00 pm EST

Antibacterial soaps are on the way out. They aren’t needed and could even do more harm than good, FDA concludes.

AlexRaths/ iStockphoto

Antibacterial soaps will not remain on U.S. grocery store shelves for much longer. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, has just approved a new measure that will ban 19 ingredients in soaps. The ban will go into effect in one year. All of the banned substances had been promoted as germ killers.

What made FDA take this move? The term “antibacterial” suggests that such soaps can halt the spread of germs. In fact, “we have no scientific evidence that they are any better than plain soap and water,” says Janet Woodcock. She directs FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. It’s in Silver Spring, Md. Three years ago, FDA asked soap makers to submit data on the safety and efficacy of such products. But they could not prove that these chemicals made their products better than regular soap at getting rid of germs.

Worse, some data suggest these germ killers “may do more harm than good over the long-term,” Woodcock adds.

Why? In the Federal Register document outlining the new ban, FDA described this issue. Antiseptic chemicals do kill germs. But low levels of these chemicals are not very effective. Any germ that isn't killed  may even evolve a resistance to these chemicals — especially when exposed to dilute amounts. And when these chemicals wash down a sink’s drain and into the environment, they will be diluted. Once a microbe develops genes to resist the “germ killer,” it can share those genes with other germs. Eventually, a great many germs may become resistant to — unaffected by — these chemicals.

The soon-to-be outlawed chemicals include triclosan (TRY-klo-san) and triclocarban. They are the two most widely used non-prescription antiseptics. Each year, U.S. soap manufacturers use an estimated 363,614 kilograms (799,426 pounds) of triclosan and 640,000 kilograms  of triclocarban for their products, FDA said. 

Concerns over triclosan

Of the two chemicals, triclosan is best known. That’s largely because of studies pointing to the risks it may pose.

A report on triclosan in Science News, 15 months ago, noted that: “In people, the chemical shows up in blood, urine, breast milk, umbilical cords and snot. The health risks of prenatal doses of triclosan are unknown. In the nose, however, researchers found that triclosan-laced snot helps Staphylococcus aureus bacteria invade the body. Such invasions increased the risk of staph infections, which can cause pneumonia.” Pneumonia is a potentially life-threatening lung disease.

The triclosan that washes down the drain when people wash their hands flows to city water-treatment plants. There the pollutant can affect the bacteria relied upon to break down sewage. Studies have suggested that the chemical can kill off some of these good microbes. And it can make others resistant to the antiseptic.

The European Union has reported finding concentrations of triclosan in a number of regions that suggest “bacterial resistance could occur,” the FDA said. There’s no proof that triclosan resistance is a public health risk yet. But FDA cited studies indicating that resistance to this chemical is building.

That’s why, to play it safe, FDA noted that it could not characterize this chemical — or the others affected by the new ban — as “generally recognized as safe.”

The new FDA ban does not include hand sanitizers. FDA is studying them separately. In the meantime, the agency recommends using hand sanitizers that are at least 60 percent alcohol. Or people can just wash with old-school soap and water. 

Oh, and another federal agency — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — also has instructions on how best to wash your hands. Indeed, CDC argues that good hand washing is basically a “do-it-yourself vaccine” against infections.

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

antibacterial     Having properties that tend to destroy or limit the growth or reproduction of bacteria.

antiseptic      (noun) A chemical, such as alcohol, used to kill germs. (adj.) A surface or environment that it totally germ-free or scrupulously clean. 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC     An agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, CDC is charged with protecting public health and safety by working to control and prevent disease, injury and disabilities. It does this by investigating disease outbreaks, tracking exposures by Americans to infections and toxic chemicals, and regularly surveying diet and other habits among a representative cross-section of all Americans.

chemical     A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (become bonded together) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made of two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen atom. Its chemical symbol is H2O. Chemical can also be an adjective that describes properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.

compound     (often used as a synonym for chemical) A compound is a substance formed from two or more chemical elements united in fixed proportions. For example, water is a compound made of two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen atom. Its chemical symbol is H2O.

data     Facts and/or statistics collected together for analysis but not necessarily organized in a way that give them meaning. For digital information (the type stored by computers), those data typically are numbers stored in a binary code, portrayed as strings of zeros and ones.

efficacy     The ability of something to work as expected or achieve desired results.

European Union     The confederation of European countries (currently 28) that have agreed to work peacefully together. Residents of EU can move freely between its member countries and sell goods to them. Most members have also adopted the same currency, known as the Euro.

Food and Drug Administration     (or FDA) A part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, FDA is charged with overseeing the safety of many products. For instance, it is responsible for making sure drugs are properly labeled, safe and effective; that cosmetics and food supplements are safe and properly labeled; and that tobacco products are regulated.

germ     Any one-celled microorganism, such as a bacterium, fungal species or virus particle. Some germs cause disease. Others can promote the health of higher-order organisms, including birds and mammals. The health effects of most germs, however, remain unknown.

infection     A disease that can spread from one organism to another. It’s usually caused by some sort of germ.

infectious     An adjective that describes a type of germ that can be transmitted to people, animals or other living things.

microbe     Short for microorganism . A living thing that is too small to see with the unaided eye, including bacteria, some fungi and many other organisms such as amoebas. Most consist of a single cell.

prenatal     An adjective that refers to something that occurs before birth.

resistance     (as in antimicrobial resistance) The reduction in the effectiveness of a drug or other chemical to kill the germs responsible for an infection.

risk     The chance or mathematical likelihood that some bad thing might happen. For instance, exposure to radiation poses a risk of cancer. Or the hazard — or peril — itself. Among cancer risks that the people faced were radiation and drinking water tainted with arsenic.

sanitize      (n. sanitizer) The process of removing substances that can spread disease.

sewage     Wastes — primarily urine and feces — that are mixed with water and flushed away from homes through a system of pipes for disposal in the environment (sometimes after being treated in a big water-treatment plant).

Staphylococcus aureus     (also known as staph) A species of bacteria that is responsible for a number of serious human infections. It can cause surface abscesses, or boils. If it gets into the bloodstream, where it can be carried throughout the body, it may also cause pneumonia and infections of the joints or bones.

toxic     Poisonous or able to harm or kill cells, tissues or whole organisms. The measure of risk posed by such a poison is its toxicity.

triclosan     A germ-killing chemical added to some common products such as hand soaps and sponges.

vaccine      A biological mixture that resembles a disease-causing agent. It is given to help the body create immunity to a particular disease. The injections used to administer most vaccines are known as vaccinations.


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Government Rule: U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Safety and effectiveness of consumer antiseptics; topical antimicrobial drug products for over-the-counter human use. Federal Register. Vol. 81, September 6, 2016, p. 61106.

Agency Announcement: FDA requests additional information to address data gaps for consumer hand sanitizers. June 29, 2016.

Journal: X. Wu et al. Treated wastewater irrigation: uptake of pharmaceutical and personal care products by common vegetables under field conditions. Environmental Science & Technology. Vol. 48, October 7, 2014, p. 11286. doi: 10.1021/es502868k.

Journal: P.J. McNarmara, T.M. LaPara and P.J. Novak. The impacts of triclosan on anaerobic community structures, function, and antimicrobial resistanceEnvironmental Science & Technology. Published online June 10, 2014. doi: 10.1021/es501388v.

Journal: J. Heidler and R.U. Halden. Mass balance assessment of triclosan removal during conventional sewage treatmentChemosphere. Vol. 66, January 2007, p. 362. doi: 10.1016/j.chemosphere.2006.04.066.