Back in December the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned consumersthat using antibacterial soap might expose them to unnecessary risks from the chemicals they contain.
The FDA also warned manufacturers that it would consider regulations on the products, adding that it had found no evidence over-the-counter (OTC) antibacterial soap products are any more effective at preventing illness than washing with plain soap and water.
Antibacterial soap products contain chemical ingredients, such as triclosan and triclocarban, which the FDA says may carry unnecessary risks, given that their benefits are unproven.
"New data suggest that the risks associated with long-term, daily use of antibacterial soaps may outweigh the benefits," said Colleen Rogers, Ph.D., a lead microbiologist at FDA.
Among the risks, says Rogers, are indications that certain chemicals in antibacterial soaps may contribute to bacterial resistance to antibiotics, and may have unanticipated hormonal effects.
In the months since the FDA issued its statement, manufacturers have been preparing their case.
The American Cleaning Institute (ACI) and the Personal Care Products Council – trade groups representing manufacturers – say regulations that remove antibacterial soaps and body washes from store shelves could lead to 7.5 million new cases of foodborne illness each year.
"Washing the hands with an antiseptic handwash can help reduce the risk of infection beyond that provided by washing with non-antibacterial soap and water," the groups said in joint comments to the FDA.
What about the FDA's argument that there is no evidence the chemicals in antibacterial soaps are more effective than regular soap and, in fact, may cause harm?
The trade groups turn the question around, questioning the agency's concern about the chemical in the soaps.
"No scientific studies currently exist to demonstrate a correlation between the active ingredients considered in the proposed rule and adverse health effects on consumers,” the groups said. “As a result, there are no measureable benefits of the proposed rule."
The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) disagrees. In 2010 it filed a lawsuit to pressure the FDA to regulate antibacterial soaps, claiming that the chemicals they contain can cause a number of undesirable side effects, including damage to reproductive organs and lower levels of sperm and thyroid hormone.
The NRDC suit noted that the FDA began to regulate these products in 1978 but never completed the process. While the FDA considers picking up where it left off, at least one state has acted on its own.
Minnesota last month enacted a ban on antibacterial soaps, preventing their sale within the state. The Minnesota law specifically bans the chemical triclosan.
Antibacterial soaps are most often sold in liquid form, but not all liquid soap is classified as antibacterial. Antibacterial soaps are often sold in traditional bars.
The earliest antibacterial soap brand is Dial, developed after World War II for use in industrial environments. In the 1966 TV commercial below, Dial links the removal of bacteria from the body with its deodorant powers.
Today, antibacterial soaps are mostly found in kitchens and bathrooms, especially bathrooms in public locations.
How do you tell if a product is antibacterial? Most antibacterial products have the word "antibacterial" on the label.
Also, a drug facts label on a soap or body wash is another sign a product contains antibacterial ingredients. Cosmetics must list the ingredients, but are not required to carry a drug facts label.
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