FDA's Slippery Stance On Antibacterial Soap: Admits Triclosan Might Be Bad, Could Ban

It might be flu season, but the Food and Drug Agency isn't quite sure about this whole "antibacterial soap" thing. So much so that the FDA is proposing to issue soap manufacturers an ultimatum: Prove that the antibacterial soap is better and safer that regular soap, or drop the label and reformulate the product. The FDA says that new studies suggest antibacterial soap might not, actually, be be any better than regular soap — plus, there's some evidence that long-term exposure to the main added chemical, triclosan, could mess with hormone levels and make bacteria more resistant.

It doesn't take a biology degree to know that bacteria evolves to become more resistant to efforts made to kill it, meaning that triclosan, found in 75 percent of America's anti-bacterial soap and body wash, can wind up backfiring by making bacteria even more resistant — something way more professional researchers have been saying forever. So it's pretty great that the Feds are finally listening to science, because better late than never or something.

Or, well, maybe not. A while back, the FDA was advised to figure out exactly how safe triclosan, one of the main antibacterial chemicals, was. Oh, and this was 40 years ago. But the FDA only released their report on it after a three-year legal battle with an environmental group who accused them of purposely delaying the report. Maybe the report's findings can explain why...

Animal studies have shown that triclosan alters hormone regulation. However, data showing effects in animals don’t always predict effects in humans. Other studies in bacteria have raised the possibility that triclosan contributes to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics.

Said the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research director, Janet Woodcock: “Due to consumers’ extensive exposure to the ingredients in antibacterial soaps, we believe there should be a clearly demonstrated benefit from using antibacterial soap to balance any potential risk."

Little risks, you know, like potentially delayed puberty and infertility. Somewhat eyebrow-raisingly, hand sanitizers and wipes, as well as anti-bacterial products in hospitals, aren't included in the FDA's proposal.

"To me it looks like the risks outweigh any benefit associated with these products right now," said University of Michigan School of Public Health professor Allison Aiello. "At this point, it's just looking like a superfluous chemical."

Manufacturers will have a year to prove that their chemical creations are indeed better and safe to use over time. In the meantime, the FDA is opening up the proposal for 180 days for public comment, so comment away if you like.

Here's the funny thing: Back in 1978, the FDA published a tentative draft of some guidelines for chemicals used in hand soap. Because there wasn't enough evidence to show that triclosan was beneficial, the FDA said it was "not generally recognized as safe and effective."

But, drum roll: The draft was never finalized, even though a few versions of it came out over the years, so manufacturers never had to take it out of their products. It wasn't until 2012 that the FDA was called on to produce a final review of the chemical.

A year after the draft was produced, this of-the-era gem from the FDA came out: "All That Lathers is Not Soap." Behold:

You've been near it all your life, bassinet to bath to boudoir. It was used behind your ears before perfume was used there. It has removed dirt and grime from your face, fingers, and knees. If you've said naughty words your mother may have threatened to wash out your mouth with it. It has cleansed you, made you smell good, added a glow to your complexion, and helped make you feel fresher. But what do you really know about soap?

Turns out... not a lot.