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FDA Panel: No Advantage to Antibacterial Soap

Advisory Panel Says Regular Soap and Water Just as Effective in Preventing Illness
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Oct. 20, 2005 -- Popular antibacterial soaps and washes are no more effective at preventing illness than plain -- and less expensive -- soap and water, an FDA advisory panel warned. The experts said it may not be worth the risk of spawning resistant bacteria.

The panel's conclusion could eventually lead to stricter regulation of hundreds of antibacterial products, now often sold with the suggestion that they offer an advantage over traditional cleansers.

But FDA officials said any potential rule changes that force stricter labeling or place limits on advertising claims are more than a year away at least.

Antibacterial soaps and alcohol-based hand gels are widely used by hospitals and clinics where they have shown some benefit in cutting the risk of patient-to-patient infections. But the products are also widely sold to the general public despite evidence that hand washing with regular soap and water is just as effective.

Regular Soap vs. Antibacterial Cleansers

In an 11 to 1 vote, advisory panel members concluded that mass-marketed antiseptics have shown no evidence of preventing infections more effectively than hand washing with regular soap.

"There's no evidence they're a good value," Alistair Wood, MD, chairman of the FDA's Nonprescription Drugs Advisory Committee, tells WebMD. "There doesn't seem any good reason to buy them."

The committee made a unanimous exception for evaporating alcohol-based hand cleansers, which it said could be of use in places without ready access to soap and water. Those places could include daycare settings with no nearby wash basin or use by travelers who spend time away from convenient, clean water sources.

Soap Industry Responds

Representatives of soap and detergent companies say their products live up to their labels, which claim that they significantly reduce the presence of germs on the hands.

"We believe that the benefit of reducing harmful germs on the skin is apparent," says Brian T. Sansoni, vice president of communications for the Soap and Detergent Association, an industry group.

"We are concerned that consumers' access to these products might be limited in some way," he says.

Risk of Resistant Bacteria

The FDA asked for the panel's advice because of a concern that chemicals used in antibacterial soaps could accumulate in the environment and promote potentially dangerous resistant germs.

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