CHAPEL HILL – Companies that produce anti-bacterial soaps and body washes have one year to prove that their products are more effective than plain soap and water in preventing illness and the spread of infection, the Food and Drug Administration announced Monday.

WCHL’s resident science expert Jeff Danner says this “half-hearted” measure does not address the real problem with the anti-bacterial soap, suggesting that the products should be banned by the FDA.

“What’s the FDA is doing is that they are looking at the soaps, but they are looking at them for the wrong issue,”  Danner says. “The real question is whether we should be using soaps that have antibiotics in them at all.”

Danner explains that for the most part, the outer layer of our skin is not harmed by bacteria.  The goal of an antibacterial soap is to remove or kill the bacteria before it enters the body.  Plain soap will wash away the germs, Danner says, accomplishing the goal of cleansing the skin without the need of antibacterial agents.

“As we learn more and more about the problem of having antibiotics out there in the world, teaching the bacteria to become stronger and to evolve their defenses, we simply don’t need to be doing that as we are washing our hands.”

Hand sanitizer is also effective at cleaning your hands because it contains the active ingredient alcohol. Danner says that if a bacterium is immersed in alcohol, the cell membrane will dissolve, causing it to fall apart. Additionally, future generations of bacteria can’t adapt to alcohol, the way they can to the antibacterial agent in soap.

Most mouthwashes are also alcohol based and kill bacteria in the same way.

“People are afraid of bacteria, so it is a really good marketing tool for these companies to put “anti-bacterial” on their products because people will think ‘I’ll be safe, my home will be clean, my children will be safe.’ But good old Dial soap or hand sanitizer with alcohol in it will work as well or better,” Danner says.

Antibacterial soaps, sometimes called antimicrobial or antiseptic soaps, contain certain chemical ingredients that plain soaps do not.

A large number of liquid soaps labeled “antibacterial” contain triclosan, an ingredient over which many environmental and industry groups have raised concerns. Laboratory studies have raised the possibility that triclosan contributes to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics, according to the FDA. Such resistance can have a significant impact on the effectiveness of medical treatments.