What the Triclosan Victory Means and Doesn't Mean

Thanks to an NRDC lawsuit, you can soon shop for soap and rest easy knowing that you won’t be picking up a bottle with triclosan or a bar with triclocarban. The Food and Drug Administration – after 40 long years – has taken the final step necessary to get triclosan, triclocarban, and other unsafe and ineffective chemicals out of so-called antibacterial soap.

But the FDA didn’t quite do everything. Here’s a quick explanation of what happened, what didn’t happen, and what it means.

First, a little background.

The chemicals added to antibacterial soaps are regulated as “drugs” by the FDA. This means that to be used in antibacterial soaps, FDA has to determine that these drugs (or chemicals) are safe and effective. Back in 1978, FDA proposed a rule to not allow these chemicals into antibacterial soap. But because they never actually finalized the rule, these chemicals were allowed into soaps and the market for them exploded.

Despite requests to finalize the rule and inquiries from Congress, FDA did nothing. Finally, when nothing else seemed to work, we sued the agency. After 3 years of litigation (we lost in district court, but won on appeal), the FDA settled the case by agreeing to specific deadlines to finalize the rule on antibacterial soaps.

Here’s the good news.

Within a year, no company can market antibacterial soap that contains triclosan, triclocarban, and 17 other chemicals that are not safe and not effective. We have been trying to get triclosan and triclocarban out of soaps for years. The scientific literature pointed to concerns about the adverse health impacts associated with exposure to these chemicals.  At the same time, studies showed that using soaps with triclosan were no more effective at preventing illness than using regular soap and water. Getting these toxic, unnecessary chemicals out of hand soaps marks a big victory for consumers.

But, triclosan could still show up in soap.

This final rule excludes three categories of uses: healthcare antiseptics, hand sanitizers, and food handling. When we settled our lawsuit, FDA agreed to issue a final rule on healthcare antiseptics by January, 2018 and for hand sanitizers by April, 2019. But food handling remains up in the air. According to FDA, food handling refers to anything in the food chain, from picking to serving. Does that mean that restaurant restrooms could still use soap that contains triclosan? “Possibly” says FDA. It plans to deal with food handlers in another rulemaking, but there’s no deadline for that.

Could it be another 40 years before we see a food handler rule?

And not all soaps will definitely be safe and effective.

The FDA deferred making a decision on three chemicals: benzalkonium chloride, benzethonium chloride, and chloroxylenol. As it happens, these chemicals are common replacements for triclosan in soaps, and we are concerned about at least two of them. Benzethonium chloride and benzalkonium chloride belong to a group of chemicals called “quaternary ammoniums” or just “quats” for short. There is some burgeoning science showing there might be health concerns associated with these chemicals.

Companies can submit data by February, 2017 to try to show that these chemicals are safe and effective. Then, FDA will “reassess” whether these chemicals are safe and effective and maybe make a decision - but there is no deadline. Until then, those chemicals can remain in hand soaps.

Could it be another 40 years before we finally see a complete decision on hand soaps?

What has become clear over these years trying to get triclosan out of hand soaps is that FDA needs pushing and prodding to do its job of protecting us. We really need the agency to cross the finish line on all these chemicals, so that we can rest easy when shopping for soap or when our kids are washing up at a fast food restaurant.

We shouldn’t have to be guinea pigs for another 40 years while FDA makes up its mind. In fact, we shouldn’t have to be guinea pigs at all.

About the Authors

Mae Wu

Senior Attorney, Health program

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