‘Kills 99.9% of household germs’ is a ubiquitous claim found on cleaning products these days, such a hand soaps and washes, but probably not for much longer.

The FDA has recently (December 2013) flagged that companies claiming this have to justify its health benefits and prove its safety (they have until 2016). Given there is no scientific evidence for any health benefit to antibacterial soaps, this looks like an end-game for these products.

FDA: “Millions of Americans use antibacterial hand soap and body wash products. Although consumers generally view these products as effective tools to help prevent the spread of germs, there is currently no evidence that they are any more effective at preventing illness than washing with plain soap and water. Further, some data suggest that long-term exposure to certain active ingredients used in antibacterial products—for example, triclosan (liquid soaps) and triclocarban (bar soaps)—could pose health risks, such as bacterial resistance or hormonal effects.”

Whereas companies used to lure consumers with these sorts of claims, some companies have already stopped doing it, trying to lure consumers with environmental counter-claims. So it goes… another cycle of product differentiation and bewildered consumers.

Antibacterial soaps and washes don’t work and might be dangerous because: 1) They need to be left on the hands much longer that most people would wash (at least 2 minutes); 2) their commonness is almost certainly encouraging the development of resistant strains; 3) if they do work they also kill the bacteria that are good for us; 4) there is increasing evidence they are linked to hormonal problems (thyroid); 5) the active ingredients can survive waste-water treatment and so accumulate in the environment and enter the food chain; 6) while in the environment, triclosan can react with sunlight to form dioxins which can disrupt the endocrine and immune systems.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “washing hands with soap and water is the best way to reduce the number of microbes on them in most situations. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.”

UPDATE: On the 2nd September, 2016, the FDA issued their final ruling: Over-the-counter consumer antibacterial hand and body wash products can no longer be marketed to the public. Nineteen antibacterial chemicals were identified and banned from these products. Manufacturers have a year to comply fully. The ruling can be read here. Washing with plain soap and water remains the best option for health.

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