“There is no data to suggest that you’ll be healthier using these antibacterial soaps compared to using soap and hand washing alone,” she says.
A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine reported on an experiment in which 228 households were randomly assigned to use regular soaps, detergents and cleaners or antibacterial products. People in the households were monitored for illnesses like colds and skin boils. At the end of one year, there was no difference in the rates of illnesses between the two groups, Poutanen says.
In fact, many of the ailments people want to protect themselves against when they use antibacterial soaps – things like colds and the flu – are caused by viruses, which are not vulnerable to antibacterial agents.
Furthermore, there is at least theoretical reason to believe the increasing use of antibacterial soaps and cleaners may contribute to the development of drug resistance among bacteria, Poutanen says.
“Having a product where you don’t have clear evidence that it’s going to help any more above and beyond regular soap and having a product that may actually cause (resistance) problems down the road ... why use that product?” she asks.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration may be wondering the same thing. Last month it told makers of antibacterial soaps and body washes that they will need to demonstrate their products are safe for long-term use and are more effective than regular soap. Without that proof the products will need to be reformulated or relabelled to stay on the market, the FDA says.
The statement relates to products used in households, not health-care settings, and does not affect hand sanitizer products or wipes.
The statement says there is currently no evidence antibacterial soaps are more effective at preventing illness plain soap and water, and notes some studies suggest long-term exposure to some of their active ingredients could actually pose health risks, including hormonal effects and bacterial resistance.
The American Cleaning Institute and the Personal Care Products Council issued a joint retort, saying they have provided the FDA with significant data on the safety and efficacy of these products over the past two decades.