The FDA’s antimicrobial-agent soap ban has been making major waves this September. But what does it mean for you and your microbiome?
In early September 2016, the FDA announced that it will finally ban most antimicrobial agents in soaps. Companies using the popular cleansing chemicals triclosan (liquid) and triclocarban (bar) now have one year to find an alternative, lest their products get pulled from the shelves. That means roughly 90 percent of the items labeled “antibacterial” in stores today.
But what does this mean for the average, soap-loving American consumer? Are we doomed to live in a germier and more infection-happy world?
Actually, this regulation should make our hygiene routines even cleaner than they were before. We break down five specific reasons to smile about the FDA’s triclosan ban, below:
1. You will save money.
Antibacterial soap is no more effective at cleaning your skin than, well, plain old soap and water. This reasoning is the backbone of the FDA’s ban, and it has been proven time and time again in clinical trials:
“Consumers may think antibacterial washes are more effective at preventing the spread of germs, but we have no scientific evidence that they are any better than plain soap and water,” sums up Janet Woodcock, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “In fact, some data suggests that antibacterial ingredients may do more harm than good over the long-term.”
Let us also consider that most illnesses arise from a virus (think sore throats and stomach flus), not bacteria. Food borne infections like e. Coli and salmonella cannot even be killed by antibacterial agents. So, with this information in mind, everyone can stop splurging on bacteria-bombing soaps that promise to kill “99.9%” of all bacteria for optimal health. This claim is neither accurate nor necessary. (You don’t even have to use hot water to get your best clean, says the CDC.)
2. Your hormones will thank you...
It is incredibly easy for triclosan to penetrate the skin and enter the bloodstream, according to a University of Newcastle study. So it’s especially upsetting that triclosan is an endocrine disruptor—even at low doses. A growing body of research shows altered levels of estrogen and testosterone in mice and aquatic organisms that have been exposed to the chemical, and biologists have reason to believe the same might be true for humans. This could affect our thyroid systems, weight, and metabolism, too.
Right now, a whopping 75% of CDC participant urine samples show traces of triclosan. The FDA ban will likely bring that number way down, making for happier hormones.
3. ...And so will your muscles.
Triclosan is also known to impair muscle function in humans and animals. The chemical inhibits strength by hindering contractions at a cellular level. We shouldn’t take this lightly, since some of our vital organs—hearts, for example—rely on strong muscle contractions to work.
If you think trace amounts couldn’t make a difference, consider the work of study author Nipavan Chiamvimonvat, who tested tiny levels of triclosan on isolated human hearts. “The effects of triclosan on cardiac function were really dramatic,” he told The Smithsonian. “...this compound acts like a potent cardiac depressant in our models.”
By swapping out the banned chemicals for more natural options, you may avoid these adverse effects.
4. We may help fight antibiotic resistance.
Believe it or not, most surface-level cleansers don’t contain enough triclosan to truly “kill” bacteria. Instead, they include sub-lethal concentrations: traces that are just dangerous enough to harm some bacteria while allowing others to quickly adapt and thrive. A few generations of selective pressure later, the almighty “superbug” is born.
By putting away our anti-bacterial weapons, we may well be saving ourselves from the very real dangers of antibiotic resistance in the long run.
5. We have finally set off in the right direction—and we still have miles to go.
The decision to ban triclosan in soaps was a great one. But what about other products?
Colgate, for example, was mandated by the FDA to prove the efficacy of their triclosan-inclusive toothpaste, Colgate Total, back in 1997. They completed the trials, but failed to address the more serious health concerns now associated with antibacterial chemicals. (This is especially strange because triclosan is even more easily absorbed through the mouth than through the skin.) You may also still find antimicrobials in the cleansing toolkits of hospitals, restaurants, and convenience stores. The next step in this wave of bacteria-friendly regulation is to further investigate the effects of triclosan in non-soap hygiene products, like toothpaste and hand sanitizer, slated for 2018-2019.
Until then, we invite you to celebrate the triclosan ban with us. It means the nation is finally rethinking what it means to be healthy in a natural, science-backed, and eco-conscious light.