Is your “antibacterial” soap really safe for daily use?

L0049721 Magazine insert advertising Lifebuoy soap
Lifebuoy Soap magazine advert (1910s) [Source: Wikipedia Commons]
What comes to your mind when you think of TV commercials for bath soaps? One can recall a sculpted actor pretending to be a “scientist” or “doctor” in a pristine, white lab coat explain why this or that soap has unique, “antibacterial” ingredients which can safeguard your family against harmful “germs”. It may come as a surprise to hear that these antibacterial products (sometimes called antimicrobial or antiseptic) do not have any demonstrated, clinical evidence to prove that they are more effective or safer than plain soap and water.

On September 2 this year, the United States of America’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a rule which banned the marketing of consumer, antiseptic wash products containing one or more of 19 active ingredients. Manufacturers in the US have one year to comply with this rule by either pulling the products from the market or by changing the product formulations (removing the banned ingredients). But this rule does not apply to hand sanitizers, wipes or those products used in health care settings.

Antibacterial soaps are different from plain soaps because they contain additional chemicals which are believed to reduce or prevent bacterial infection. Two of the chemical ingredients banned by the FDA rule are triclosan (used in liquid soaps) and triclocarban (used in bar soaps).

Scientific American reports that triclosan was first introduced in the 1960s for use in hospitals. Manufacturers later introduced this and other antibacterial ingredients into a range of consumer products including toothpaste, mouthwash, clothing, kitchenware and even toys. Concerns over the efficacy and safety of triclosan arose soon after with even the FDA considering the ban of the ingredient in the 1970s.

Four decades of research has revealed one fact very clearly: that triclosan-based soap is not any better than plain soap and water. Research in animal studies has shown that triclosan can alter the way in which some hormones work in the body, raising concerns about its effect in humans. More significantly, laboratory studies have revealed that triclosan can even contribute to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics, creating the growing global problem of drug-resistant “superbugs”. Triclosan also impacts the environment negatively: when we wash using antibacterial soaps and wash them down the drain, the chemicals in them have been found to remain in natural water bodies (lakes, rivers, oceans) and even in house dust.

Several products in India use triclosan and triclocarban, prominent among them being Lifebuoy (manufactured by Hindustan Unilever), Savlon (ITC), Santoor (Wipro) and Cinthol (Godrej). Hindustan Unilever has stated that it began replacing the ingredients in its products in 2015 and plans phasing out the ingredients by 2017. The national regulator of cosmetic products in India, Central Drug Standard Control Organization (CDSCO), is yet to make a public statement on this matter but news reports reveal that it is planning a review on the FDA ban. Other countries are also reviewing the ban.

If the antibacterial soaps we use everyday can be ineffective and even harmful, what should we do?

First, check the fine print on the wrapper of your soap or hand wash. If triclosan or triclocarban is listed among the ingredients then you can follow what the FDA and other experts recommend: ditch the antibacterial soap and revert to a regular soap. The more environment conscious among us can try eco-friendly bath products; the more adventurous ones can even try making their own home-based solutions.

Considering that even daily-use bath products can be harmful, how can we ascertain the safety of other things that we consumer daily… food, for instance?

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