Makers of antibacterial hand soaps and body washes are being urged to come clean and demonstrate that their products are both safe and more effective than soap and water.

The products have been at the centre of a four-decade investigation by US regulators, who said on Monday that they may do more harm than good.

"Although consumers generally view these products as effective tools to help prevent the spread of germs, there is currently no evidence that they are any more effective at preventing illness than washing with plain soap and water," the US Food and Drug Administration said in a statement.

Long-term exposure to antibacterial chemicals, such as triclosan in liquid soaps and triclocarban in bar soaps, could have hormonal affects and allow bacteria to mutate into harder-to-control strains, according to research cited by the FDA.

More than 2,000 soap products in the United States contain antimicrobial chemicals, and 93 percent of those in liquid form contain triclosan, the FDA said.

Cleaning up the industry

Triclosan may be associated with the development of allergies in children, said Dr Leonardo Trasande, associate professor of paediatrics at New York University.

Dr Leonardo Trasande says chemicals found in antibacterial products may disrupt thyroid hormones.

"The World Health Organisation in 2012 announced a report which documented great concern about the public health consequences of these chemicals," he told Al Jazeera.

"I think families can go ahead and take care to eliminate triclosan from their homes. Soap and water work perfectly well."

The proposed rule would not affect hand sanitisers, wipes or antimicrobial products used in healthcare settings, the FDA said.

Industry trade lobbyists washed their hands of the FDA's research findings.

"A review of two dozen relevant published studies analysing the effectiveness of antibacterial soaps showed that hand washing with these products produces statistically greater reductions in bacteria on the skin than when using non-antibacterial soap," said the American Cleaning Institute.

The proposed FDA rule comes five days after the FDA issued new voluntary guidelines to phase out the use of antibiotics as a growth enhancer in livestock, also in an effort to stem a surge in human resistance to antibiotics.

The livestock guidelines are "part of the [same] general equation of what are the benefits of using antimicrobials and how do they stack up against any risks", said Sandra Kweder, deputy director of the Office of New Drugs at the FDA.

The proposed rule will be available for public comment for 180 days. Concurrently, companies will be given one year to submit new data and information, followed by a 60-day rebuttal comment period.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies