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FDA Finally Moves to Regulate Proliferating Antibacterial Soaps

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Coming Clean Campaign page.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has told manufacturers of antibacterial soaps and body washes to demonstrate that they are both safe and effective within the next year. New evidence is emerging that some of the chemicals used in soaps, toothpaste, dish detergent, and other common household products may pose hazards for human health and the environment. The FDA's proposed final rule would require manufacturers to demonstrate efficacy and safety or the products could be reformulated or removed from the market.

The announcement was made in response to pressure from environmental and consumer groups. After years of FDA foot-dragging, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) sued in 2010 to force the FDA to issue a final rule to regulate the antimicrobial chemicals that are spreading to more and more products and are commonly used in schools and other institutions.

The agency stresses that, although millions of Americans use these products, believing them to help prevent the spread of germs, "there is currently no evidence that they are any more effective at preventing illness than washing with plain soap and water." "Especially because so many consumers use them," the FDA writes in an update specifically geared for consumers, "there should be clearly demonstrated benefits to balance any potential risks."

Pesticides in Handsoap and Toothpaste?

Of particular concern to the FDA are the commonly used antibacterial chemicals triclosan and triclocarban. Triclosan is a pesticide first registered with the EPA for usage in 1969, but today 93 percent of liquid antibacterial soaps contain triclosan, and triclocarban is commonly used in bar soaps. The FDA also approved the use of triclosan in Colgate in 1997. Not only may these chemicals be contributing to bacterial resistance to antibiotics, but they may also have unanticipated hormonal effects.

Triclosan replaced the use of hexachlorophene after it was banned from household items in 1972. At first it was used primarily in hospitals -- by surgeons preparing for surgery, for example -- but in the 1990s, it started to be more widely used in household products ranging from clothing to kitchen knives to toys to soap.       


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