It Took The FDA Four Decades To Seek Evidence About Whether Antibacterial Soap Is Safe

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On Monday, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it will require soap and body wash manufacturers to submit evidence that a controversial anti-bacterial chemical, triclosan, is safe for human use. The move comes after four decades of pressure to regulate the widespread practice of including these chemicals in household products.

Triclosan, which was first developed in the 1960s to disinfect hospitals, is incredibly common; an estimated 75 percent of antibacterial liquid soaps and body washes in the U.S. now contain this ingredient. Products that include triclosan are typically touted it as a better alternative to regular soap and water.

But there’s no evidence that the chemical actually kills germs any better than soap does — and there are mounting concerns that long-term exposure to triclosan could actually have some serious consequences, such as potentially disrupting reproduction and impairing muscle function. Some public health advocates also believe that the widespread use of antibacterial products is contributing to the rise of superbugs that are resistant to antibiotic treatments.

In 1972, Congress passed a law requiring the FDA to set guidelines for regulating the use of triclosan. But more than forty years later, those rules haven’t yet been finalized, and companies have continued to add triclosan to everything from mouthwashes to kids’ toys. Meanwhile, the FDA delayed completing a review into the chemical’s safety so many times that a federal court finally stepped in to order the agency to finish it.

Now, the FDA finally believes it has collected enough scientific data on the subject to act. This week’s new rule doesn’t immediately restrict the use of triclosan, but it does require companies to prove that their antibacterial products are safe and more effective than soap. Companies will have until next December to submit their data on triclosan in order to keep their products on the market.

“Consumers assume that by using antibacterial soap products they’re protecting themselves and their families from illness — but we don’t have any evidence that they’re better than simple soap and water,” an FDA spokesperson pointed out, noting that some of the marketing materials for these products misleadingly suggest they help prevent people from getting sick.

The FDA hopes to have a final rule on the matter by the fall of 2016.

The federal health agency is notoriously slow to take steps to regulate potentially harmful chemicals, often because of industry lobbying and influence. The decision to take some action on triclosan comes on the heels of another recent federal attempt to prevent the spread of drug-resistant bacteria, an increasingly serious public health threat that has lacked significant oversight. Last week, the FDA announced new voluntary guidelines to dissuade the overuse of antibiotics in the meat industry — but, similar to the move on triclosan, that involved simply asking companies to be more transparent rather than issuing a mandatory rule.