Is antibacterial soap safe for healthcare workers?

Despite the proven benefits of hand-washing, use of antibacterial soap may expose healthcare workers to "potentially unsafe levels" of a common chemical currently under Food and Drug Administration (FDA) scrutiny, according to a new study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

The FDA is currently reviewing the effect of triclosan--an antibacterial agent commonly found in soap, cosmetics, skin creams and some brands of toothpaste--on hormone levels. The agency is concerned it may cause side effects, such as interference with hormones and fetal development problems, according to researchers from the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF).

Paul Blanc, a professor of medicine at the UCSF, and his team studied urine samples from two groups of 38 nurses and doctors at two hospitals, with the first hospital using an antibacterial soap containing 0.3 percent triclosan and the second using plain soap and water. Researchers also used a questionnaire to determine any additional exposure to triclosan among participants.

Triclosan levels were significantly higher in the first hospital group's samples than those of the second, according to the study. Despite these findings, Blanc emphasized that proper hand-washing is vitally important for healthcare workers. "If non-triclosan-containing soaps are available, use the alternative," he said in a statement. "This is based on the precautionary principle--that is, if you don't know for certain that something is unsafe, it's better to err on the side of caution."

In the meantime, Blanc recommended healthcare workers use plain soap and water, but said the burden is on the FDA to determine as soon as possible whether triclosan is safe, rather than leaving individuals to scrutinize every product they use for the chemical.

Failure to adhere to hand-hygiene protocols is a major problem within healthcare in and of itself; a 2013 survey found only 13 percent of emergency medical providers washed their hands before contact with patients, FierceHealthcare previously reported.

To learn more:
- read the study abstract
- here's the statement

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