FDA taking a closer look at “antibacterial” soaps

[excerpts from FDA press release]

FDA Taking Closer Look at ‘Antibacterial’ Soap

When you’re buying soaps and body washes, do you reach for the bar or bottle labeled “antibacterial”? Are you thinking that these products, in addition to keeping you clean, will reduce your risk of getting sick or passing on germs to others?

Not necessarily, according to experts at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
In fact, there currently is no evidence that over-the-counter (OTC) antibacterial soap products are any more effective at preventing illness than washing with plain soap and water, says Colleen Rogers, Ph.D., a lead microbiologist at FDA.
– this seems reasonably defensible, although whether the FDA and the federal gov’t should be getting involved to this extent is another issue. But their claim, that these “antibacterial” additives don’t do any good so therefore shouldn’t be marketed in that manner, and that there’s a (very theoretical) downside to their mass usage, has some validity.
– on the other hand, when I was growing up… I was taking bubble baths with PhisoHex. And look at me now. Err, maybe not…

rest: http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm378393.htm

7 responses to “FDA taking a closer look at “antibacterial” soaps

  1. Ok, let’s get it stratight. The world is not a sterile place. It is inhabited by microorganism except in places where the conditions are prohibitive–extreme cold or hot would be examples.

    So, other than catering to the neuroses of anxious comfortable people, what was the reason for antibacterial soaps?

    Well if clean is good, how about antiseptic clean–that’sthe rationale, unfortunately that also provides an opportunity for the Dunnster to point out the old Bastiat warning about unintended consequences–goes like this–weak bugs (that’s viri and bacteria and ricketseii) compete for space with virulent and bodacious bugs. If the antibacterial soap or wash or shampoo or dishwasher soap or laundry soap has some antibacterial chemical, might result in the survival of undesirable bugs.

    Similar to the effect of giving antibiotics to people, might select out a mor virulent strain or species of the target bug or of other bugs that just happen to be around.

    Resistant staph is a problem of people in populations that receive antibiotics–for example my interviews of returning physicians from Iraq showed little native population problems with resistant staph, as compared to American soldiers. Course that’s not a controlled study–ignore it as proof or allow it as a reason to consider the premise.

    We think, us loosy goosy biology freaks, that the pediatric population my be the reservour for resistant staph, harboring it in the nose and on the skin, due to the frequence of antibiotic use for kids respiratory infections.

  2. My family doctor, 60 years ago, didn’t believe in antibiotics casually given for all sorts of things. He thought that bugs might develop an immunity to the wonder drugs. He was a rarity at the time.

  3. Friend of John Galt

    There is a difference between an “antibiotic” and and “antibacterial or antiseptic” soap or detergent. All soaps/detergents have some antiseptic effects — from simply washing away the bacteria and the food source for the bacteria on skin, counter tops, or in clothing, etc.

    50 year ago, hexachlorophene, was the “antibacterial” additive used in some soaps and detergents — a common liquid soap was “Phisohex” that was being used extensively, especially in hospitals. (I was ‘prescribed’ to use it to wash my face as an acne preventative.) In the late 60s (as I recall) it was restricted as the hexachlorophene had some negative effects on humans, particularly babies.

    For the past 20 years or more the active ingredient in “antibacterial” soaps/detergents is Triclosan (and closely related compounds). Other “antibacterial” ingredients include chlorine bleach, and various alcohols. Bleach and alcohols generally have a wide scale of damaging effects to biological materials resulting in bacterial death. Bleach causes a clumping of proteins that renders them useless — killing the bacteria. This is actually a similar response that bacteria have to heat (which is why certain internal temperatures are recommended when cooking foods that might be contaminated with bacterial).

    Alcohol (ethanol and isopropanol) kill bacteria by making the cell membrane more soluble in water, causing the bacteria’s cell walls to lose their strength and fall apart. Once the bacterial walls break down, the alcohol then “attacks” the exposed internal proteins, destroying them (again, the effect on the proteins is similar to the action of heat).

    Bleach and alcohol are so strongly anti-bacterial (antiseptic) that there is little possibility for bacteria to develop a defense. The attack is broad against all proteins, and that leaves no alternatives to create a survivable population other than those bacteria that just happen to have not received a sufficient “dose” to render them inactive.

    Originally, triclosan was thought to operate in a similar manner, but it has been found that it attacks a single bacterial fatty acid biosynthetic enzyme — that is similar to the ways that most antibiotic medications operate. Thus, triclosan (and it close relatives) also causes the potential for bacterial resistance to develop. Since triclosan uses similar pathways as antibacterial medications, it is possible that survival of bacteria from triclosan will also render those bacteria resistant to other antibiotics.

    The larger issue is the tendency of our culture to attempt to “sanitize” everything in our personal environment. It is suggested that this high level of fastidiousness may actually be the partly responsible for the increases in allergies, etc. that’s been observed. Our immune systems don’t get “exercised” enough, so they tend to overreact to non-serious “threats.”

  4. There’s a good writeup about what’s often referred to as the “hygiene hypothesis” (that is, keeping our environment, especially that of infants and children, too clean…) over at Wikipedia. Yes, we all know that it’s not the most reliable of sources, but this article seems to be well written and has pointers to a fair amount of source material:

  5. What FDA are concerned about is the marketing of these products. In the US, you can pretty much sell anything that doesn’t actually harm anyone, but if you make a claim (such as antibacterial) then you have to be able to back it up with data. What they are saying is that there isn’t any data to back up the claims about these products and if people are buying them because of the claims, then these people are being duped. The fact that the marketing around these products is also feeding the general paranoia about germs is just another negative, but lets face it, that has been going on since Clorox was coined as a brand name for bleach.

    As to potential harm from Triclosan, as far as I can tell, these are classic JunkSciene fodder – high doses in rats, constant selection pressure on bacterial cultures etc.

  6. That’s right, when you wash yourself with an antibacterial soap containing triclosan, you are washing yourself with a pesticide. Many soaps labeled “antibacterial” or “antimicrobial” contain at least one of the ingredients that the FDA is proposing to ban. Household cleaning products with these labels likely also contain them. As many as 2,000 products could be affected, though some manufacturers have already started reformulating their products to remove triclosan and similar chemicals because of consumer concerns.

    • And when you take prescribed blood thinners you’re taking rat poison. That fact that the chemicals also kill some insects doesn’t mean they aren’t effective at killing microorganisms or that they cause illness in humans. Even the smallest human is a lot larger than most insects targeted by pesticides.

      It’s interesting to note that large companies are already changing their product. I bet they even support a ban on the old formulation. Check out when their patents expired and how much it’s going to cost their low-priced competitors to comply with the new regulations. Ditching an unpatented formula in favor of a patented one prevents generics from horning in on your market. If you can get people scared to use the unpatented formula, or better yet get it banned, then you’re well on your way to monopoly.

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