Germaphobes were stunned last year when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned triclosan and 18 other chemicals commonly found in antibacterial products, such as hand sanitizer and hand soap. The ban extends only to consumer products, not to those used in hospitals and similar settings. The FDA gave companies a year to remove these ingredients, which means products containing them are still widely available — for now.

Does an end to antibacterial products mean an end to clean hands? Here’s what you need to know.

Why the FDA Banned Some Ingredients

Two motives drove the ban: misleading statements suggesting that commonly used antibacterial products are more effective than plain soap, and a failure by companies to demonstrate that antibacterial ingredients are safe over the long-term. Antibacterial products can also be poisonous in high doses, raising concerns about their frequent use around pets and children.

Some research suggests that long-term use of antibacterial products may disrupt the endocrine system, leading to issues such as fertility problems. Some preliminary research also links these products to cancer.

Bacteria is just one cause of infection. Antibacterial products don’t protect against viruses and fungi. Moreover, not all bacteria are dangerous. The stomach’s health, for example, depends on a complex colony of bacteria. Antibacterial products may even kill beneficial bacteria.

Which Products Are Safe?

Almost all products marketed as antibacterial are covered under the ban, though companies are already attempting to develop new antibacterial products that don’t fall under the prohibition. Alcohol, which kills some germs, is not banned, so may begin appearing more in antibacterial products. The ban also does not apply to bleach and similar disinfecting agents, though these products are not safe to apply directly to the skin.

Can You Use Banned Products?

There’s no good reason to purchase the products the FDA banned. They’ll soon be unavailable, and the potential harms outweigh any possible benefits. That’s precisely the problem with these products: people believe they are safe and useful because of marketing campaigns, not because of reliable, peer-reviewed research. 

If you already have antibacterial products, consider switching now to plain soap and water. There’s no reason to believe antibacterial products offer any benefit. If you’re concerned about your health, it’s safer to break the antibacterial product habit now.

Some states have taken proactive measures to remove banned products from their shelves before the FDA ban goes into full effect. Minnesota banned the sale of triclosan beginning in January.

Do You Need Antibacterial Products?

Many illnesses are bacterial, and for children and the elderly, even minor infections can become life-threatening. So it makes sense that you’d be concerned about the risks of bacterial infections. But you don’t need antibacterial products to be healthy. Plain soap and water are just as effective as antibacterial products, and they are less likely to cause long-term health problems.

To combat the spread of germs and disease, wash your hands with warm water and soap after using the restroom, before and after preparing food, after coming into contact with sick people, and after coughing, sneezing, or smoking. If you are caring for a newborn, elder, or sick person, wash your hands before touching or hugging the person for whom you care. When visiting someone with a compromised immune system, including new babies, wash your hands. Stay away if you are sick.

Bacterial illnesses can be scary, but viruses such as the common cold and flu are more prevalent. Routine vaccination, good hygiene, staying home when you’re sick, and other simple strategies remain the most efficient ways to protect your health and prevent the spread of infection.