Antibacterial liquid soaps, bar soaps, and body washes don't protect you from disease-causing germs any more than regular soap and water, but they could be ransacking your health. Public health groups have been voicing these concerns for decades, and now the Food and Drug Administration is stepping in, giving manufacturers one year to prove that their antibacterial soaps are safe or they'll be ousted from the market.
Stacks of laboratory and animal studies link the most commonly used antibacterial chemicals, triclosan and triclocarbon, to impaired thyroid and brain function, low testosterone, and decreased fertility. Research also suggests that these chemicals help create antibiotic-resistant superbugs that cause life-threatening infections. Although the FDA deemed triclosan and triclocarbon safe in 1994, the swelling number of studies exposing their dangers prompted the agency to reconsider. "This is a huge and timely step toward addressing an important public health and environmental issue," says Rolf Halden, director of the Center for Environmental Security at Arizona State University, who has been studying antibacterial overuse for years. "The FDA has wrestled with this issue for almost 40 years now. This new path could mean positive change for finally moving the topic along."
Still, the FDA's ruling won't eradicate these chemicals completely. It does not cover triclosan-containing hand sanitizers, wipes, or antibacterial products used in health-care settings. "Exposure to triclosan and triclocarbon is almost impossible to avoid today," Halden says. "Even people who don't buy soaps containing them will get exposed in public restrooms and through dust inhalation." The FDA's proposal also doesn't cover toothpaste, deodorants, and antiperspirants, which often contain triclosan.
Even if you can't avoid triclosan and triclocarbon completely, you can control which products you buy. If something contains triclosan or triclocarbon, it will say so either in the Drug Facts panel or the ingredients list, so if you spot these words, skip that product. Scrub up with chemical-free soap whenever possible, and choose alcohol-based liquid hand sanitizers and wipes that don't contain these antibacterials.
Luckily, triclosan- and triclocarbon-free products are becoming much easier to find. Whole Foods Market and similar stores carry several thousand healthy options. And more of the biggest manufacturers are moving away from triclosan and triclocarbon – Proctor & Gamble pledged to remove them from all products by 2014.
"Regulations like this rarely, if ever, make for quick changes," says Halden. "However, people's behaviors and views can change from one day to the next, so getting this information out there right now constitutes a great opportunity. Since triclosan and triclocarbon offer no measurable and meaningful benefit, there's no need to incur an unnecessary and potentially harmful exposure along with the associated risks."