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The FDA will take a closer look at the safety of antibacterial soaps

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Millions of Americans rely on soaps and body washes labeled "antibacterial" or "antimicrobial" to kill germs and prevent illnesses. But the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) isn't convinced that the products do what they claim — and says they might pose longterm health risks that outweigh any potential benefits.

In an announcement published online today, the agency proposed tougher rules to govern antibacterial soaps and their ingredients. More specifically, the FDA wants companies to provide scientific data indicating that antibacterial soaps are more effective than plain soap and water at preventing the spread of germs and infections. Although antibacterial products are widely marketed as the gold standard for cleanliness, the agency notes that scientific evidence doesn't actually back up those claims.

Tougher rules to govern antibacterial soaps

"Every day, consumers use antibacterial soaps and body washes at home, work, school and in other public settings," reads the FDA announcement. "Especially because so many consumers use them, FDA believes that there should be clearly demonstrated benefits to balance any potential risks."

Those potential risks are another area likely to see increased federal scrutiny. The agency notes that some of the key ingredients in antibacterial soaps — namely triclosan, which is used in more than 75 percent of antibacterial soaps — have been the subject of troubling research in recent years. Animal studies suggest that triclosan might interfere with how hormones work in the body, messing with fertility and puberty and increasing one's risk of cancer. Additional research indicates that the chemical contributes to the growing threat of antibiotic resistance.

For the next 180 days, the proposed regulations will be open for public comment, and the FDA is looking to finalize new rules governing antibacterial soaps by September, 2016. If those rules look anything like the agency's proposal, companies that can't prove both the safety and health benefits of their products will be forced to reformulate or relabel them (or, possibly, pull them altogether). For now, the agency is recommending that consumers avoid using antibacterial products — and stick with ordinary soap and water instead.