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FDA examines safety and effectiveness of antibacterial soaps

December 16, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Recent research suggests that chemicals in antibacterials soaps can interfere with hormone levels and spur the growth of drug-resistant bacteria, prompting the FDA to propose new rules for manufacturers to prove their products are more effective than regular soap and water. Judy Woodruff talks to Elizabeth Weise of USA Today.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: As the cold and flu season approaches, one of the more common pieces of advice you hear is about the importance of washing your hands. Increasingly, consumers have bought antibacterial soaps to help boost their protection.

But, today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned that those soaps may not be any more effective, and they may pose some health risks of their own over the long haul.

Elizabeth Weise covered this for USA Today.

Elizabeth, thank you for joining us. People have been using these soaps for years. What is it now that the FDA is worried about?

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ELIZABETH WEISE, USA Today: Well, the FDA has two concerns.

The first is, do these actually work? Do they actually help people get fewer illnesses? And, secondly, are they safe for long-term, frequent use? And although you might imagine that FDA knows the answer to both those questions, it turns out they actually don’t. And now they Have decided they want to know that answer.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So — and so now — and so they’re saying they are going to do more testing. And what is it about The substances, the chemicals in this soap that has them concerned?

ELIZABETH WEISE: Well, the FDA is not going to do the testing. They are telling the industry to do the testing. They basically said to the manufacturers of these hand soaps and body washes, you need to prove to us that these are safe and effective.

And the concern is, there’s a chemical called triclosan, which is — it’s actually — it was used as a surgical scrub starting in the ’70s. And we began to put it in pretty much all the soaps that you can find when you go to the grocery store. And FDA is concerned because there have been studies — and they have all been in animals — but there have been studies that have shown that this specific chemical could cause endocrine disruptions.

Most of these studies are in rats and frogs, where they see that the female animals have earlier puberty and the male animals have lower sperm count. And there’s also some concern that they might affect thyroid function. And then the other concern FDA has is — is this broad use of an antibacterial in — that the public is using, is that making — giving us a higher percentage of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the world as a whole?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why weren’t these tests requested before?

ELIZABETH WEISE: Well, these are over-the-counter preparations, so FDA — they were — the FDA calls these things generally considered safe, generally recognized as safe.

And they have been considered, grasped for as long they have been around. And now FDA is coming back and saying, you know what? We are starting to see studies that are concerning us. We don’t know. And we want you, the manufacturers, to do the studies now and tell us, prove to us that these are safe and effective. And, if they are, great. And if they’re not, FDA is saying, we need to you take them off the market or you need to change your packaging and stop saying that they are protective against illness.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, in the meantime, what should consumers do? Should they continue to buy these soaps, these products?

ELIZABETH WEISE: Well, you know, the thing is, when you talk to people at the Centers for Disease Control, there’s ample evidence that plain soap and water is pretty much the best thing you can use to protect yourself.

And one of the things that the FDA said on the press call today that was interesting is a lot of advertising you see around this is all about people with colds and they’re blowing their nose and their eyes are running. Well, those are colds. Those are viruses. Antibacterials do absolutely nothing for viruses.

And that’s the most common illness in the United States. So even if you are using antibacterials, it is not going to protect you against a cold. So you might as well just use soap and water and save some money.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Common sense, good advice.

Elizabeth Weise, USA Today, thank you.

ELIZABETH WEISE: Thanks so much.