Is it the end of the antibacterial era?
Government health officials in Canada and the United States have indicated that may be the case as concerns over the efficacy and safety of antibacterial agents in soaps and cleansers, like triclosan and triclocarban, grow.
“It’s a clever strategy to sell more soap,” said Dr. Louis Hugo Francescutti, president of the Canadian Medical Association. “You scare people into thinking bacteria is everywhere … [and to] only buy soap with antibiotics in it.”
This week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it is scrutinizing antibacterial soaps and may decide to remove them from the market altogether.
Health Canada’s position is much less clear. The department concluded a review of triclosan last year that found it is not harmful to human health in the quantities currently allowed in consumer products, but that it may be harmful to the environment in large doses. Health Canada indicated it would talk to the industry about voluntary reduction of antibacterial agents.
This week, a spokeswoman said the department will watch and see what the FDA does, indicating the Canadian government could follow the U.S.’s lead if it decides to place a moratorium on antibacterial agents in soap.
Here’s why so many are concerned about triclosan and similar agents: According to the FDA website, there is no evidence showing that over-the-counter antibacterial soap is “any more effective at preventing illness than washing with plain soap and water.”
And over the long term, use of soap with triclosan or other antimicrobial agents may pose real threats. Several studies have shown triclosan to be an endocrine disruptor, which means it interferes with how hormones work in the body. This can impact the reproductive system and may be linked to some types of cancer. Antibacterial agents in soap could help bacteria become resistant to antibiotics. This is a major concern worldwide as the number of antibiotic-resistant infections grow and more people fall ill and die as a result. There is also plenty of evidence showing that triclosan and similar agents can harm the environment.
“This is a chemical that there’s a lot of concern about,” said Maggie MacDonald, program manager of the toxics program at Environmental Defence, an advocacy organization based in Toronto.
As a result, groups such as the Canadian Medical Association and Environmental Defence have been calling for a ban on antibacterial consumer products for years.
It’s unclear whether antibacterial soap will soon be a thing of the past, but if the U.S. decides to give it the axe, Canada will likely follow suit, said MacDonald.
Consumers shouldn’t be confused, Francescutti said. Hand-washing with soap and water will help reduce the spread of infection. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can also do the trick, especially for people who are on the go.
“The sooner we get rid of these [antibacterial] agents in our soap, I think the better we will all be,” he said.