FDA Puts Dangerous Soap Chemical in Its Crosshairs

If triclosan is so effective, prove it, FDA tells manufacturers.

December 17, 2013


A toxic chemical use in antibacterial soaps, dish detergents, and even some toothpaste products is coming under fire as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is asking manufacturers to prove that it's safe and really better at killing germs than regular soap and water.


Over the years, the FDA has faced increasing pressure—even lawsuits—to ban triclosan in soaps and body washes, as more and more studies question the usefulness and safety of the antibacterial soap chemical now detected in 75 percent of Americans' bodies; triclosan routinely turns up in our urine, blood, and even breastmilk during biomonitoring tests. Triclosan is literally coursing through our veins!

A suspected hormone-disrupting chemical, triclosan has estrogen-like properties and has been linked to reproductive and developmental damage in lab studies. Thyroid damage, brain damage during crucial periods of development, poor sperm quality, and memory and learning problems are some of the specific health issues associated with the antibacterial soap chemical. Other research suggests using antibacterial soaps don't effectively wipe out germs, a practice that could help breed hard-to-kill superbug germs. Recently, scientists found evidence that triclosan triggers allergies and weakens muscle function, too.

The breakdown? Triclosan poses enormous risk with no benefit. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other non-industry-funded scientists have shown time and time again that washing with regular soap and water is just as effective than using antibacterial soaps.

What's crazy is FDA promised to take a closer look at triclosan way back in 1978, but never did. Since then, it's turned up in hundreds of products—even some toothpaste! Faced with decades of inaction at the FDA, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) sued the agency in 2010, forcing it to issue a final ruling on the chemical. As part of a settlement signed in November, the FDA proposed a new final rule and promised to take action by 2016.

Forced to take action, the FDA is now saying antibacterial soaps and body washes are safe and are more effective at killing germs than regular soap and water. If industry can't prove safety and effectiveness, manufacturers may have to relabel, reformulate, or possibly even remove triclosan from their products.

"Antibacterial soaps and body washes are used widely and frequently by consumers in everyday home, work, school, and public settings, where the risk of infection is relatively low," says Janet Woodcock, MD, director of the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. "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."

The FDA opened up a 180-day comment period while also giving companies one year to submit new data and information to argue that triclosan is safe and effective.

"This is a good first step toward getting unsafe triclosan off the market," says Mae Wu, an attorney in NRDC's health program. "FDA is finally taking concerns about triclosan seriously. Washing your hands with soap containing triclosan doesn't make them cleaner than using regular soap and water and can carry potential health risks."

Here's how to get antibacterials soaps and triclosan out of your life:

Follow proper handwashing techniques.

1. Wet your hands with running water. (Cold is fine—using warm water is unnecessary and wastes energy.)
2. Add soap and rub hands vigorously for at least 20 seconds. The rubbing is critical, so don't skimp on it. Rub and lather all surfaces, including the backs of your hands, between your fingers, your fingertips, and under your fingernails. If you have little ones, get them washing to a song like "Happy Birthday," "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," "The ABC Song," or "Mary Had a Little Lamb" twice. Or introduce them to Henry the Hand, champion handwasher.
3. Rinse, keeping your fingers pointed down. Rinsing is what washes the germs away, so be thorough.
4. Dry your hands vigorously with clean paper or a clean cloth towel to remove any straggler microbes.

Find better soap. Triclosan isn't the only bad actor in soaps. "Fragrance" or "parfum" ingredients also likely harbor hormone-disrupting chemicals called phthalates. Also watch out for triclocarban, a relative of triclosan. Check out Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetics Database to rate your favorite soap—and to find safer options.

Seek better sanitizers. If you're not near a sink and need to clean your hands, the CDC recommends using alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. Know this, though: Alcohol sanitizers don't kill all types of germs, and should be used when your best option—properly washing your hands with regular soap and water—isn't possible.

Beware of these claims. While triclosan is easier to detect in personal care products because it legally has to be listed on the ingredients list, other types of household goods don't fall under those disclosure laws. Beware of "anti-odor," "germ-free," "odor-killing," and similar claims. Companies impregnate everything from cutting boards and fans to socks and underwear, gym bags, and workout clothes with antibacterial agents, often triclosan.

Eat organic. Triclosan's problems don't end in the shower. Nonorganic farms are allowed to use human sewage sludge—the stuff left over after water is filtered at wastewater treatment plants—to fertilize their fields. A recent study in Environmental Science & Technology found plants readily absorb triclosan in the roots and parts that we eat. Gross! This practice is banned in organic