Washing your hands is a great way to keep germs at bay and reduce the spread of illnesses, and many people look to antimicrobial soaps thinking they'll keep you healthier. But a recent announcement from the FDA is changing how we'll lather up our hands by banning 19 ingredients commonly found in antibacterial soaps.
This announcement may come as a surprise to some, but it has been a long time coming for those who oppose antibacterial soap for a variety of health and environmental reasons. Not only do ingredients in antibacterial soap have the potential for harm, but the evidence shows that they're not more effective at cleaning than regular soap and water.
Out of the 19 soap ingredients listed in the ban by the FDA, triclosan and triclocarban are the most notorious. They are both powerful antibacterial agents, but there is concern that they could disrupt hormones in the body like estrogen and testosterone. Abnormal function of these hormones could lead to diseases like breast or prostate cancer.
These ingredients are also suspected to play a role in antibiotic resistance, giving rise to "superbugs" that can't be killed with regular antibiotics. This happens when bacteria are exposed to an antibiotic but not killed by it. That strain then evolves to resist that type of antibiotic, making it harder to kill the bacteria in the future.
The health concerns don't just apply to those using antibacterial soap to wash their hands because the soap doesn't disappear after it's rinsed down the drain. These antibiotic ingredients wind up in waterways, affecting wildlife as well.
It's important to note that the ban only affects products for regular consumers; antibacterial soaps will still be available for the health care and food industries. This also doesn't apply to alcohol-based hand sanitizers.
Of course, washing with regular soap is only effective if you do it correctly. A study from Michigan State University found that only 5 percent of people wash their hands correctly (something to keep in mind the next time you touch the door of a public restroom). Make sure to remove jewelry and watches and really rub your hands together for 20-30 seconds, including under fingernails.
The timing of the FDA's announcement couldn't have been better, since cold and flu season is coming up. Not only is this good for public health and the environment, but it's a good reminder that effective hand washing is easier to do than we think.
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