A government advisory panel will take a look at that Thursday.
The popularity of soaps and other products claiming antibacterial properties skyrocketed in the last decade as consumers turned to them as a defense against household illnesses. But some people contend that a number of the products, particularly those that use synthetic chemicals rather than alcohol or bleach, pose the risk of creating germs that are resistant to antibacterials as well as antibiotics.
Those critics say antibacterials are no more effective than regular soap in reducing infections and illnesses. The Food and Drug Administration, in briefing documents posted on the Internet ahead of Thursday's hearing, said the agency has not found any medical studies that definitively linked specific antibacterial products to reduced infection rates.
Unlike antibacterial products, regular household soap helps separate bacteria from the skin so they wash down the drain or attach to the hand towel when hands are dried. Anti-bacterial soap kills the bacteria outright.
Manufacturers disagree with many of the critics' claims, while both sides point to studies they say support their point of view. An FDA panel of independent experts will take up these concerns in a public hearing.
The Nonprescription Drugs Advisory Committee will consider whether there is evidence that these products pose long-term hazards, as the critics contend. They can make recommendations on the sales and labeling of these products to the FDA, which ultimately has the authority to restrict availability of such soaps and related items.
The FDA briefing documents do not suggest any such ruling is imminent.
Critics like Dr. Stuart Levy, president of the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics, say these products should be banned for use in healthy households. Instead, he says, keep them where they are needed: in hospitals and in homes with very sick people at greater risk if they get a bacterial infection.