Dirty little secrets: Neither antibacterial soaps nor the FDA help us.

This just in from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration: “Keep waiting.”

I was on the FDA website the other day, and it seems the FDA has quietly made a small change to a webpage that has big implications for all of us.  In a 37-year history of delays, FDA is again delaying protecting us from potentially unsafe chemicals in antibacterial soaps.

Back in April, 2010, FDA announced that it was studying the safety of triclosan (the chemical used in antibacterial soaps). It promised to communicate its findings to the public in spring, 2011. But with no public announcement, FDA recently edited the page to say that it would communicate its findings in the winter, 2012. Check it out for yourself: here’s a link to the page as it appeared when we filed our lawsuit this past summer and here’s a link to the webpage from today.

No explanation of why it needs the extra year and a half. No update on what it’s done so far. Nothing.

Mounting evidence shows that antibacterial soaps containing the chemicals triclosan and triclocarban are neither safe nor effective. In lawyer speak, that is a death sentence for any product awaiting FDA approval. But for the past 37 years, FDA has done nothing to protect us from these products. Neither pressure from a U.S. Congressman nor a lawsuit by NRDC has been enough to push the FDA. And now FDA is giving itself another extension. We’re taking note – and so has the New York Times.

Now, citizens are trying to pick up where the FDA left off. A citizen suit was filed last September against Dial under the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Practices Act.  

We’ve all seen them. Ads for antibacterial soaps scream “Stop the spread of bacteria!” “Protect your family!” Bottles of antibacterial soap on the store shelf are stamped with “Kills 99.9% of germs!”  And it seems obvious. Why not buy the soap that gives us an added layer of protection from the scary bugs that are attacking us every day?

Why not? Because, behind all those scary ads and pretty packaging, they are hiding a little secret: we don’t actually need them.

Antibacterial soaps are no better than regular soap. Scientific studies have shown that. The FDA has admitted that.

Even more important, the very chemicals that make those soaps “antibacterial” might actually be hurting us. Laboratory studies have shown that both triclosan and triclocarban can interfere with hormones, especially those most important for proper growth and reproduction. 

If that isn’t enough, triclosan and triclocarban have also been tied to contributing to antibiotic resistance (that is, the rise of superbugs). The problem of antibiotic resistance means that when doctors prescribe an antibiotic to treat an infection, there is a growing chance that it won’t work. This is bad news for everyone.

How many more lawsuits is it going to take before FDA figures it out? FDA, stop covering up your delays, and start acting now. Get these products off our shelves. Protect us. Protect our families.

About the Authors

Mae Wu

Senior Attorney, Health program

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