FDA Scrubs Shelves of Antibacterial Soaps Using Triclosan

Ingredient Commonly Used Since 1972 Among 19 Banned Ingredients

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Bottles of antibacterial soap are seen on a grocery store shelf.
Bottles of antibacterial soap are seen on a grocery store shelf. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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The Food and Drug Administration today finalized a rule to ban key ingredients from antibacterial hand and body wash products – including triclosan and trilocarban – though marketers have a year to comply and there are a handful of remaining antibacterial ingredients they may be able to keep using later.

"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," said Janet Woodcock, director of the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. "In fact, some data suggests antibacterial ingredients may do more harm than good over the long term."

This doesn't mean "antibacterial" soaps will be going away anytime soon. For one thing, the FDA essentially said all soap is antibacterial, giving marketers seeming leeway to keep using the term regardless of removing the ingredients. And when Colgate reformulated Palmolive Ultra-Antibacterial dish soap in 2011, it said it was making the formula better, and it currently uses a range of ingredients, including alcohol and salt, that don't appear on the FDA list of banned or potential banned ingredients.

Critics have said bacteria are largely resistant to triclosan, which some studies also showed to alter thyroid, reproductive, growth and developmental systems in young and adolescent animals, the FDA said in a 2013 draft rule. Data provided by manufacturers about the safety and effectiveness of triclosan and the other 18 banned ingredients weren't sufficient to convince the FDA to allow continued use in wash products.

The decision doesn't affect products used in healthcare facilities or some other uses, such as Colgate Total toothpaste, which uses triclosan as an active ingredient, and which the company said is shown by clinical research to be safe and effective.

Some manufacturers had eliminated triclosan from wash products as early as 2011 in response to consumer concerns, including Colgate, which removed it from Palmolive dish soap. And the FDA said more manufacturers have moved away from the now-banned chemicals since the proposed rule was issued in 2013.

The FDA has deferred rulemaking for one year on three other ingredients used in consumer wash products – benzalkonium chloride, benethonium chloride and chloroxylenol – to allow manufacturers to submit new safety and effectiveness data.