What You Should Know About Antibacterial Soap

Antibacterial soap no more effective than plain soap, may be dangerous, says FDA

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Jennifer Gershman, PharmD, CPh

When you reach for a bar or bottle of soap labeled "antibacterial," are you thinking it will help keep you from getting sick? If you answered yes, you're not alone, but you may be incorrect.

Every day, thousands of consumers worldwide use antibacterial soaps and body washes at home, work and school. But maybe they shouldn't, at least according to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The FDA recently announced a bold new position on these products: Antibacterial soap is no more effective at preventing the spread of illness than plain soap, and the potential risks tied to long-term, daily use may outweigh the benefits.

What Is Antibacterial Soap?

Antibacterial soap, sometimes called antiseptic soap, contains certain chemical ingredients not found in plain soap. These ingredients are added to products in an effort to reduce or prevent the spread of bacteria.

Most of these products include the word "antibacterial" on their labels.

The FDA Weighs In

According to the FDA, there have been recent indications that certain ingredients in antibacterial soap, such as triclosan, may cause unanticipated negative effects.

Triclosan is currently of concern to many environmental groups, as some studies have found that it may alter the way hormones work in the body. Other studies have found that triclosan may contribute to antibiotic resistance. Still others suggest that exposure may be higher than previously thought — raising concerns about the potential risks of long-term use for consumers.

That's why the FDA believes that the benefits of antibacterial soap should be clearly demonstrated before consumers are encouraged to use it.

In light of this data, the FDA has recently proposed a rule requiring manufacturers to demonstrate the safety and effectiveness of antibacterial soap. Manufacturers have until 2016 to do so, or risk having their products removed from store shelves.

Antibiotic Resistance

Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria adapt to the drugs designed to treat them. This can cause illnesses that were once easily treatable to become stronger.

Each year, more than 2 million Americans are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Around 23,000 die as a result, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). By 2050, antibiotic resistance is estimated to kill 10 million people worldwide each year and cost the global economy more than $100 trillion US.

What's to blame? The overuse of antibiotics is the single most important factor in antibiotic resistance worldwide, according to the CDC. But the FDA says the overuse of antibacterial soap may also be contributing.

In spite of the seriousness of this issue, a recent study published in The Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy found that the public may have an incomplete understanding of antibiotic resistance and its causes.

The Importance of Hand-Washing

While antibacterial soap may have its cons, hand-washing in general is one of the most important steps people can take to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others.

The CDC calls hand-washing a "do-it-yourself" vaccine, recommending five simple and effective steps to reduce the spread of illness: wet, lather, scrub, rinse and dry.

If plain soap and water are unavailable, the CDC recommends using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.

Review Date: 
December 3, 2015