The Food and Drug Administration is clarifying the science behind antibacterial products.

By Kelly Vaughan
March 06, 2020

With more cases of coronavirus being discovered throughout the United States every day, thoroughly washing your hands is more important than ever. Doctors have consistently said that people should wash their hands for at least 20 seconds using soap and water. If you're unable to access a sink and soap, hand sanitizer has been touted as the next best alternative. Now the Food and Drug Administration is clarifying the benefits—and health risks—associated with certain kinds of soap and sanitizer.

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The majority of antibacterial soaps contain two active ingredients—triclosan and triclocarban. However, the FDA said there isn't sufficient enough research to prove that these ingredients are safe to use for a long period of time. As of May 2019, manufacturers started removing those ingredients from over-the-counter antiseptic wash products including liquid, foam, gel hand soaps, bar soaps, and body washes. The FDA's rule does not apply to hand sanitizer or hand wipes, nor does it apply to antibacterial products used in health care settings.

Related: How to Wash Your Hands Properly, According to a Doctor

Although there is little research on the health and environmental concerns of triclosan, some data shows that it can interfere with the effectiveness of medical treatments, such as antibiotics, and can alter hormone levels. "There's no data demonstrating that these drugs provide additional protection from diseases and infections. Using these products might give people a false sense of security," says Theresa M. Michele, MD, of the FDA's Division of Nonprescription Drug Products. "If you use these products because you think they protect you more than soap and water, that's not correct."

Outbreak or not, the FDA advises that Americans always wash their hands for 20 seconds with soap and water as frequently as possible. That is the most effective way to avoid getting sick and spreading germs. "Following simple handwashing practices is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of many types of infection and illness at home, at school and elsewhere," says Michele. "We can't advise this enough. It's simple, and it works."

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