Your Antibacterial Soap May Be Killing You

The FDA says there's no evidence that antibacterial soaps do a better job cleaning hands, and chemicals in them may pose health hazards. The FDA ban applies only to consumer products, not those used in hospitals and food service settings.

For years, we were made to believe that antibacterial soap is better than plain soap because of its bacteria-killing power. Recent research and reports however suggest that there is insufficient evidence to claim that they provide any of such extra benefit. Rather it has been discovered that it may even be harmful to our health.

Antibacterial Soap: Marketing Gimmicks or Reality?

This is the summary of a recent report published online by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and dated September 2, 2016. The report also maintain that to date, the benefits of using over-the-counter (OTC) antibacterial hand soap have not been scientifically proven.

So what about all these ads we see on TV regularly, claiming 99.9% or more power to kill germs and bacterial? Well, based on current evidence, they only make good advertising gimmicks but certainly do not guarantee enhanced protection or good health.

Why Should We Believe This?

Although the National Agency for Food, Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) has not officially made known its position on this issue, similar bodies across the globe such as the Canadian Pediatric Society, the American Medical Association, the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and a US Federal Advisory Committee on Nonprescription Drugs all say that antibacterial soaps and washes are no more effective than regular soap and water in fighting infection in everyday use.

in the words of Dr. Joanne Embree, a pediatric infectious disease specialist in Winnipeg and chair of the Canadian Pediatric Society’s Infectious Diseases and Immunization Committee, “hand washing, using plain soap and water, is still the most important way to reduce the spread of germs.”

So What Can Be Bad About Using Antibacterial Soap?

Triclosan and triclocarbon are the two most commonly used antibacterial agents used in manufacturing antibacterial soaps. Numerous studies have found that triclosan promotes the emergence of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. This is fingered to have partly contributed to the rising incidence of Antibiotic resistance globally in the last 5 years. In other words, there is a risk that rather than provide any extra benefit, antibacterial soap could reduce the effectiveness of drugs we rely on to fight infections when we actually get infected.

Triclosan also has environmental effects. It has been found to create dioxin (when exposed to sunlight) and chloroform (when combined with free chlorine in water). Research has shown that triclosan is building up in the environment, and has been found in the umbilical cord blood of infants and in the breast milk of mothers.

Other potentially harmful effects of triclosan include endocrine disruption (affecting the performance of the thyroid hormone), impairment of the immune system, allergies, risk of cancer due to combination with chlorine in tap water to form chloroform which is carcinogenic, and possible effect on muscle contraction.

Three years ago, the United States FDA issued a proposed rule requiring manufacturers of antibacterial products containing those ingredients to prove that these ingredients are safe for daily use over a long period of time. They were also required to prove that these soaps are more effective than plain soap and water in preventing illnesses and the spread of certain infections.

However, since no credible evidence has been presented till date, the FDA is now moving to issue a final rule under which OTC consumer antiseptic wash products such as liquid, foam or gel hand soaps, bar soaps, and body washes containing the majority of these antibacterial active ingredients (including triclosan and triclocarbon) will no longer be able to be marketed.

This according to the FDA report as led some manufacturers to start removing these ingredients from their products, ahead of the its final rule.

Implication for Nigerian Consumers

For us in Nigeria, we need to start asking questions and be vigilant. NAFDAC should be encouraged to keep abreast with emerging global issues and findings in this regard as well as ask manufacturers of similar products in Nigeria to guarantee that their products are safe for us to use.

We as consumers should also probably start doing away with these products especially if their manufacturers do not come out to reassure us (supported by NAFDAC of course) that their products are safe for us to use.

And if you have got some of these antibacterial soaps at home and  may not be comfortable suspending their use, please check their ingredients and at least be sure that they do not contain triclosan and triclocarbon. When we have additional information on other antibacterial soap ingredients that may also be harmful, we will update this post or write a new one.