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Finally! FDA Bans Toxic Soap Chemical (But Are the Replacements Safe?)

The Food and Drug Administration made waves this month with a ruling banning toxic chemicals from antibacterial soaps, washes, and toothpastes. Though the “antibacterial” label may sound attractive to those looking to fight germs, the FDA’s ruling makes it clear that consumers were getting more than they bargained for.

Specifically, hand-washers and tooth-brushers were exposed to triclosan, a toxic chemical and major cause of antibiotic resistant bacteria. The toxin has also been long suspected of causing1 hormone disruption, increased susceptibility to allergies, and even cancer. Triclocarban, a closely related compound found in antibacterial bar soaps, was also banned by the FDA.

If you’re curious what exactly this means for your own home, a comprehensive list of the banned products can be found here.2 A few of the most common ones are Dial Liquid Hand Soap, Bath and Body Works Antibacterial Hand Soaps, and Colgate Total Toothpaste. Time to clean out your medicine cabinet.

The FDA’s ban came down just as the World Health Organization (WHO) released a report3 on the increasing global dangers posed by antimicrobial resistance. The WHO’s report explains that the “misuse and overuse of antimicrobials [i.e., antibacterials]” is accelerating the process of antimicrobial resistance, leading to an “increased risk of worse clinical outcomes and death.”

What Took So Long?

For many health and environmental watch groups, the triclosan ban is long overdue. As early as 2007, an article4 in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases reported that antibacterial soaps provided no additional health benefit compared to standard soaps, but instead increased possibility of creating drug-resistant bacteria.

One of the paper’s co-authors, Dr. Staurt Levy, a professor of microbiology at Tufts University, explained that much of the harm stems from public confusion about antibacterials. “The whole issue of antibiotics, where they do good and they don’t do good, has not been explained well enough to the public,” he said.5

Even more alarmingly, in 2008, a study6 by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) reported that triclosan was detected in the urine of nearly 75% of their survey population, including young children. Remarkably, the study also found that the chemical could also be found in human breast milk and blood samples.

Ken Cook, co-founder and president of EWG, recently commended7 the FDA’s decision, but argued that it was overdue. He described the pharmaceutical producers as belonging to an industry that “needed a good, swift kick in the triclosan.”

Tips for Safe Germ Fighting

The ban of these antibacterial chemicals may have some folks wondering: what’s the best way to combat germs now. Fortunately, the FDA reports8 that plain soap and water, applied by scrubbing the hands and wrists for 20 seconds, is just as effective for preventing illnesses and the spread of infections.

In cases where soap and water is unavailable, the Center for Disease control recommends9 using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol. Hand sanitizer, while better than nothing, is still not as safe an option as regular soap and water.

Companies will have one year from the September 6th ruling to make sure that they are in compliance with the FDA’s new regulation,10 so it is possible that consumers will still find products containing the banned substances on supermarket shelves. This means it is especially important for consumers to be aware of which products contain the toxic antibacterial chemicals.

So it sounds like mom’s advice really was timeless. A good soap and water scrub is still the best weapon we have against germs. By the time you’ve finished singing “Happy Birthday” twice – hopefully in your head – your hands should be germ free.

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References:

1. "Triclosan". Beyond Pesticides.

2. "Products Containing Triclosan". Beyond Pesticides.

3. "Antimicrobial Resistance". World Health Organization.

4. Aiello, A. E., E. L. Larson, and S. B. Levy. "Consumer Antibacterial Soaps: Effective Or Just Risky?". Clinical Infectious Diseases.

5. Howard, Jacqueline. "FDA Bans Some Antibacterial Chemicals In Soaps". CNN.

6. "Triclosan Toxicity". EWG.

7. Grover, Natalie. "FDA Halts Sale Of Some Antibacterial Hand, Body Wash Products". Reuters UK.

8. "FDA Issues Final Rule On Safety And Effectiveness Of Antibacterial Soaps". Fda.gov.

9. "FDA Requests Additional Information To Address Data Gaps For Consumer Hand Sanitizers". Fda.gov.

10. Safety And Effectiveness Of Consumer Antiseptics; Topical Antimicrobial Drug Products For Over-The-Counter Human Use. 1st ed. Food and Drug Administration, 2016.

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