Above: Image © Kilav, iStockphoto

A controversial decision

In September 2016, the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decided to ban antibacterial soap. More specifically, it banned 19 compounds often used in these soaps. These compounds may cause health problems for people. American companies now have one year to remove all of the banned compounds from their products.

But some organizations, like the American Cleaning Institute, are against the ban. They claim that antibacterial soaps are safe. So why is the FDA banning them? And what do Canadian regulators have to say on the subject?

What processes do government regulators follow when deciding whether to ban or allow particular compounds?

Good intentions but potential harm

Antibacterial soaps were developed to stop the spread of germs. Some ingredients, such as triclosan, are good at killing bacteria. Yet there’s no clear evidence that antibacterial soaps prevent the spread of germs among the general public.

More importantly, some researchers are concerned that using these soaps could actually harm your health. They could make antibiotics less effective or cause specific health problems.

For example, a 2014 study found that mice exposed to triclosan were more likely to develop liver cancer. A 2016 study, found that pregnant rats exposed to triclosan were affected in various ways. Some had changes in their hormone levels. Others lost their fetuses. While rats and mice are not humans, they are still mammals like you. So what affects them could affect you as well.

How do antibacterial soaps affect living organisms?

Why can’t scientists give a straight answer?

All of this seems to suggest that antibacterial soaps aren’t very good for you. Still, the scientific evidence isn’t conclusive. Why not? Well, people are exposed to many different things every day. So it’s difficult for researchers to design a study that can prove that long-term exposure to a particular substance has a particular effect.

To try and prove this, researchers would need to keep people in a laboratory where they wouldn’t be exposed to other substances. Then, the researchers would have to purposely expose these people to potentially harmful compounds, like triclosan. A study like this would be unethical. (An article on eating disorders by CurioCity volunteer Crystal Gaulton discusses a similar research problem.)

How could using antibacterial soap cause bacteria to become more resistant to antibiotics?

No proof that antibacterial soaps are safe

This uncertainty is why companies are trying to fight the ban. In 2013, the FDA had asked makers of antibacterial soap to provide proof that their products were safe. According to the FDA, the soap companies did not do this. And that’s what led to the ban in 2016.

Right now, Health Canada states that exposure to the compounds in antibacterial soap is so low that it does not pose a health risk. But according to the Globe and Mail, Health Canada will be publishing an assessment on triclosan soon. In other words, it remains to be seen what will happen with antibacterial soap in Canada.

How do researchers determine whether or not exposure to a particular compound has an effect?

Learn More!

Ivan Lee


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