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Power Report: Victory for consumer as US, SA move to crack down on soap compounds

11 September 2016 - 02:00 By Megan Power
Image: Thinkstock

The best thing I ever did for my toddler's immunity was letting her get down and dirty with our family pets.

Or so a doctor suggested to me after my daughter's medical file revealed not a single antibiotic prescription during her early years.

Turns out that instead of fretting about her crawling into the dog's basket, I should have encouraged it as a healthy way to challenge her body's defence system.

It shouldn't come as a total surprise that research shows children who grow up on farms, surrounded by animals, are less likely to develop eczema, rhinitis and asthma.

And there are experts worldwide who believe a sanitised world, where children grow up exposed to less dirt than in previous generations, may be partly responsible for soaring allergy levels.

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So a decision last Friday by the public health watchdog in the US to - finally - ban two controversial chemicals commonly found in antibacterial bath soap and body wash is to be welcomed.

It's certainly been a long time coming. For years, the jury has been out on the infection-fighting benefits, and safety, of using triclosan and its cousin triclocarban in popular personal care products.

I've written about it several times in this column, naming implicated products on the shelf, and highlighting concerns that not only was scrubbing with these antimicrobial soaps no better for fighting disease than using ordinary soap and water, but that their use was potentially harmful to your health and the environment.

It isn't a view shared by the billion-dollar antibacterial industry, which has promoted these germ-busting products to a market obsessed with killing germs.

This is now set to stop. Two years ago, the US's Food and Drug Administration told manufacturers in that country that if they wanted to continue marketing antibacterial products they would have to provide additional safety data, including information showing that the products were superior in preventing illness or reducing infection.

They didn't. Well, certainly not enough to convince authorities. The FDA said the available information and published data for the two ingredients (and 17 other chemicals named) "are insufficient to establish the safety of long-term, daily repeated exposure to these active ingredients used in consumer wash products".

And manufacturers hadn't shown that these ingredients were any more effective than plain soap and water, authorities said.

"Following simple hand-washing 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," said FDA spokeswoman Theresa Michele. "We can't advise this enough. It's simple, and it works."

The FDA's ruling covers only consumer antibacterial soaps, hand-wash liquids and body washes used with water. It does not apply to hand sanitisers or hand wipes, or antibacterial soaps used in healthcare settings.

The ruling also excludes use in toothpaste; evidence has shown use of triclosan in toothpaste is effective in preventing gingivitis.

In South Africa, the chemicals remain approved for use. However, proposed new regulations under the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act, out for comment, contain restrictions on triclocarban use.

block_quotes_start US FDA did not conclude that antibacterial ingredients in soap were unsafe or ineffective, only manufacturers had not submitted enough data to support their continued use block_quotes_end

The comforting news for concerned locals is that many household soaps and washes sold here are produced by US manufacturers bound by the FDA ruling. Manufacturers will have one year to comply.

Better news still is that many of these multinationals, as well as local manufacturers, have already removed the chemicals.

Of 24 products containing triclosan or triclocarban listed by me in 2014, more than half no longer contain it or are in the process of having it phased out. (See updated list)

Consumer advocates and healthcare and environmental groups feel vindicated. They have long argued that animal studies show triclosan and triclocarban to be endocrine disruptors, with the potential to cause infertility, artificially advanced early puberty, obesity and cancer.

They also claim the soaps have the potential to create antibiotic-resistant bacteria, that children with prolonged exposure to triclosan could have more chance of developing allergies and that chemical contamination of the sewerage system with these chemicals is bad for the environment.

It seems some manufacturers were listening.

Johnson & Johnson products no longer contain either chemical, nor do any Pick n Pay house brands.

Reckitt Benckiser took the decision well ahead of the FDA decision to remove triclosan from its products. A lthough it i s "absolutely confident" about the safety and efficacy of triclocarban , in line with customer preference and consumer trends, none of its personal wash products will contain it by the end of 2017.

Ditto Unilever South Africa. None of its antibacterial soaps contain triclosan these days, with the phase-out of triclocarban due by the end of 2017.

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"Due to feedback we received from our consumers, Unilever in 2015 started replacing triclosan and triclocarban in our antibacterial soaps with a range of alternative natural and nature-inspired antibacterial ingredients such as silver, widely recognised for its antibacterial properties," said spokeswoman Sibonile Dube.

Brian Epstein, operations director of Dis-Chem, which two years ago bolstered its labelling on all house-brand products containing triclosan to better alert consumers to the ingredient, this week took the decision to phase out its own-brand products containing triclosan.

"In view of the FDA ruling, proposed local restrictions on the maximum authorised concentration of triclosan in the finished product, and the uncertainly surrounding its safety, we believe it will be best to phase out our stock of products containing triclosan and not to reorder until there is more clarity and a ruling made locally," said Epstein.

But not all are convinced. Colgate-Palmolive won't be ditching the chemicals any time soon.

Marketing director Mauricio Moutinho said hand-washing with Protex antibacterial soap was safe and could help reduce the spread of germs.

"The recent ruling by the US FDA did not conclude that antibacterial ingredients in soap were unsafe or ineffective, only that manufacturers had not submitted enough data to support their continued use in these products.

"Our Protex soap meets South African regulatory requirements and our own strict safety standards."

Moutinho said triclosan-containing Colgate Total toothpaste was not impacted by the ruling.

The supplier of Shoprite's Ritebrand hygiene soap, the Elvin Group, said it currently used well below the maximum triclosan level used by major brands.

"There is no current legislation governing the usage of the ingredient," said Elvin spokesman Denzil Kennedy.

"Alternatives to this active ingredient will impact the cost significantly with no guarantee that they are in fact better or less harmful to the environment."

Woolworths does not use either chemical in its house-brand products. Clicks removed triclosan from its hygiene range more than four years ago.

sub_head_start Update on soaps' status sub_head_end

Two years ago, I ran this list below (not definitive) of popular local products that contained either triclosan or triclocarban. Here's an updated list of the status of these products today:

• Savlon soap (Johnson & Johnson) REMOVED

• Savlon hand wash (J&J) REMOVED

• Clean & Clear facial wash - two variants (J&J) REMOVED

• Johnson's Oil Control facial wash (J&J) REMOVED

• Lifebuoy soap (Unilever SA) REMOVED

• Lifebuoy hand wash (Unilever SA) BEING PHASED OUT

• Sunlight Germiguard soap (Unilever SA) BEING PHASED OUT

• Pears Germ Shield soap (Unilever India) REMOVED

• Dettol hygiene soap (Reckitt Benckiser) BEING PHASED OUT

• Protex hygiene soap (Colgate-Palmolive) REMAINS

• Protex liquid soap (Colgate-Palmolive) REMAINS

• Protex shower gel (Colgate-Palmolive) REMAINS

• Colgate Total toothpaste (Colgate- Palmolive) REMAINS

• Pick n Pay Hygiene Liquid soaps REMOVED

• Pick n Pay Body Basics Shower Gel Hygiene REMOVED

• Pick n Pay Mouthwash, Kids Soft Mint REMOVED

• Pick n Pay African Wild Child foam bath and liquid hand soap REMOVED

• Ritebrand hygiene soap 200g (Shoprite house brand) REMAINS

• Body Solutions liquid soap (Shoprite and Checkers private label product sold in KwaZulu-Natal only) NO LONGER STOCKED

• Dis-Chem Hygiene hand wash REMAINS

• Dis-Chem Aloe Vera and Lanolin baby wipes REMAINS

• Dis-Chem Burn Gel sachets REMAINS

• Dis-Chem haemorrhoid wipes REMAINS

• Dis-Chem's Safeguard Lavender & Natural Stepping Out professional foot spray REMAINS

(These house products to be phased out by Dis-Chem - see comment in main story)

sub_head_start Contact Megan Power sub_head_end

E-mail: consumer@sundaytimes.co.za

Follow Megan on Twitter: @Power_Report

Please note: Other than in exceptional circumstances, readers sending me complaints must be willing to be identified and photographed.

Tune in to Power98.7's "Power Breakfast" (DStv audio channel 889) at 8.50am tomorrow to hear more from Megan

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