You know the “antibacterial” hand soaps that are marketed to consumers as more effective than soap and water for limiting the spread of germs? Well, apparently, they aren’t!

In 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration asked manufacturers of antibacterial hand soaps and body washes to prove their safety and effectiveness. They couldn’t. Soon, explains Maggie Fox, the ones containing the most commonly used chemicals, triclosan and triclocarban, won’t be available on store shelves:

Say goodbye to those “antibacterial” soaps. The Food and Drug Administration says they do little or nothing to make soap work any better and said the industry has failed to prove they’re safe.

Companies will have a year to take the ingredients out of the products, the FDA said. They include triclosan and triclocarban. Soap manufacturers will have an extra year to negotiate over other, less commonly used ingredients such as benzalkonium chloride.

“Companies will no longer be able to market antibacterial washes with these ingredients because manufacturers did not demonstrate that the ingredients are both safe for long-term daily use and more effective than plain soap and water in preventing illness and the spread of certain infections,” the FDA said in a statement.

“Some manufacturers have already started removing these ingredients from their products.”


Three additional ingredients — benzalkonium chloride, benzethonium chloride, and chloroxylenol (PCMX) — found in some antibacterial products are currently under review. In the meantime, plain soap and water should be all that’s necessary to do the job:

The FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agree that soap doesn’t need added antiseptics to make it work any better.

“Washing with plain soap and running water remains one of the most important steps consumers can take to avoid getting sick and to prevent spreading germs to others,” the FDA said.

“If soap and water are not available and a consumer uses hand sanitizer instead, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that it be an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.”


Score one for the precautionary principle:

The precautionary principle (or precautionary approach) to risk management states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public, or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus (that the action or policy is not harmful), the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking an action that may or may not be a risk.

…The principle implies that there is a social responsibility to protect the public from exposure to harm, when scientific investigation has found a plausible risk. These protections can be relaxed only if further scientific findings emerge that provide sound evidence that no harm will result.


The New World Encyclopedia further defines the precautionary principle as “caution in advance,” “caution practiced in the context of uncertainty,” or “informed prudence”:

This principle is important in that it allows one to anticipate harm and take appropriate precautions even in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful and what might be the level of harm. As a result, policy makers are able to make discretionary decisions to delay such an action until scientific findings emerge that provide sound evidence that no harm will result. It is analogous to such commonplace aphorisms as “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” “better safe than sorry,” “look before you leap,” and the ancient medical principle associated with Hippocrates of “First, do no harm.”


Here’s a real-world example of the precautionary principle in action:

Sometimes if we wait for certainty it is too late. Scientific standards for demonstrating cause and effect are very high. For example, smoking was strongly suspected of causing lung cancer long before the link was demonstrated conclusively. By then, many smokers had died of lung cancer. But many other people had already quit smoking because of the growing evidence that smoking was linked to lung cancer. These people were wisely exercising precaution despite some scientific uncertainty.

When evidence gives us good reason to believe that an activity, technology, or substance may be harmful, we should act to prevent harm. If we always wait for scientific certainty, people may suffer and die and the natural world may suffer irreversible damage.


(Google Images)