Need-to-know: FDA ban on antibacterial soap

It was invented to keep you healthy. Turns out to have done more harm than good.

The Food and Drug Administration on Friday banned the sale antibacterial soap, which was largely met with approval in the medical and science communities. Here’s a quick primer on what this means for you:

Why did the FDA do it?

“Consumers may think antibacterial washes are more effective at preventing the spread of germs, but we have no scientific evidence that they are any better than plan soap and water,” said Janet Woodcock, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research in a release. This is, in part, related to how much we’ve learned over the past few years about the human biome. “There’s a multitude of bacteria that protects us on the skin,” says Jeffrey Morrison, M.D., a family practitioner based in New York City and a member of the Equinox Health Advisory Board. “There are bad bacteria that everyone has heard about”—think staph—“but the good bacteria help keep bad bacteria in check; antibacterial soap is basically killing off the good and the bad.” He also notes that triclosan, one of the 19 banned ingredients, is an endocrine disruptor that may, over time, mess up hormone levels in both men and women. “When people apply antibacterial soap to the skin…some gets absorbed in the body and the absorption can accumulate and have negative estrogen-related consequences.”

Does this mean I’m going to get sick?

No. The FDA says that plain soap and water seem to be no less effective in preventing illness and spreading infection. (Morrison recommends glycerin soap.) And anyway, this has been in the works for a few years; in fact, the FDA put out what it calls proposed rulemaking in 2013, which essentially gives the industry a head’s up, and some manufacturers had already been phasing out some of the now verboten ingredients. More than that, the medical community has been worried for the past decade that antibacterial products contribute to antibiotic-resistant super bacteria, so this ban comes not a moment too soon.

What about other antibacterial products?

Toss those, too. “I am not for the antibiotic lotions, sprays and the like,” Morrison said. “Maybe if doctors need to disinfect hands between patients,” he concedes, but suggests that cleaning with alcohol could be just as effective. Not using a dollop of antibacterial gel after using an ATM or hanging from a subway pole will take some getting used to, but your immune and endocrine systems will be better for it.

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