Published on September 26, 2016

Are you obsessed with keeping germs away?

Are you obsessed with keeping germs away?

Remember when Mom told you to wash up for dinner and reminded you to use soap? She meant the old-fashioned version and she knew what she was talking about.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently banned the sale of antibacterial hand cleaners containing triclosan, triclocarban and 17 other chemicals. In its ruling, the FDA said manufacturers failed to prove they were safe or effective.

“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, MD, director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research in a press statement. “In fact, some data suggests that antibacterial ingredients may do more harm than good over the long-term.”

Kathleen Kohut, the interim director for infection prevention for Cape Cod Healthcare, applauded the FDA decision.

“I’ve always questioned the efficacy of those products,” said Kohut, MS, RN, who is certified in infection prevention and control. “It’s marketing antimicrobial and antibacterial products that are really not necessary for the general public. It’s a good thing that FDA is saying you have to have science to back this up.”

Kohut added that in addition to not working any better than plain old soap and water, some research has shown that antibacterial cleaners could be harmful in the long run.

“This is simplified, but it’s like your mother used to say, you have to eat a peck of dirt before you die,” she said. “The more we get exposed to organisms that we live with, the more we develop immunity or resistance to them. It stimulates our immune system to help guard us from disease and that helps us stay healthy.

“If we’re constantly using something antibacterial, we’re not able to create that immunity on our own.”

Stick With Plain Soap

This is a case where a centuries-old product is the best solution.

“The best alternative is good old-fashioned plain soap,” Kohut said.

“Soap and water get whatever dirt and germs are on your hands to lift off your skin and go down the drain. It’s very effective, especially if you do it right, using a little friction and getting all the nooks and crannies.

“The companies can’t show the difference between using antibacterial and plain old soap and water, because they’re both just lifting the dirt off your hands.”

If you’re on a tight budget and just bought a new bottle of an antibacterial hand soap, Kohut said you don’t need to throw it away.

“Just use it up and next time buy regular old soap,” she said. “It’s not going to be harmful to use a little bit. What we really don’t know is if you use a lot of those products, will it be harmful over a long period of time? They haven’t been able to prove that it’s helpful.”

The FDA decision does not affect the availability of alcohol-based hand gels.

“We don’t wash that off, but it kills everything that might be on our hands,” said Kohut.

The FDA ruling applied only to consumer products, not antibacterial hand washes that are used in hospitals and other healthcare facilities.

“The ruling was very specific to consumer products and not healthcare products,” said Kohut.

“The difference is that we’re working with different populations of people who are sick and are likely to have bacteria and viruses that we would like to prevent from spreading. We use products like that to help us protect ourselves and our other patients from getting sick.

“It’s important for us to use them, but the general public doesn’t deal all the time with people who are sick, so it’s different thinking.”

For tips on when you should wash your hands, read this Cape Cod Health News story.

Want to see how well soap and water works? Watch this short video of Bill Nye the Science Guy.