Increased public fear of harmful germs has led to widespread use of consumer products advertised as “antibacterial.” One of the most common antibacterial compounds is Triclosan — added to soaps, hand washes, and even toys and toothpaste, to slow the growth of bacteria, fungi, and mildew.
Triclosan is a synthetic organic chemical, specifically a chlorinated aromatic compound, 5-Chloro-2-(2,4-dichlorphenoxy)phenol. Triclosan was originally developed for hospital use, as a bactericidal surgical scrub for medical professionals. It was registered as a pesticide back in 1969. A similar compound, Triclocarban, is also used as an antimicrobial agent, particularly in bar soaps.
For the last thirty years, triclosan has been widely added to personal care products such as deodorant, antibacterial soap, hand soap, body wash, facial cleanser, toothpaste, mouthwash, acne cream, shaving gel, skin lotion, and some cosmetics, including foundation, bronzer and lipstick. Triclosan is also added to home care products as diverse as cutting boards, mops, air filters, carpets and blankets. It is embedded in fabric, used in items of clothing such as socks and shoes. It is also added to plastic, where it can be found in toothbrushes, computer mouse pads, and even toys.
For example, Dial Gold Antibacterial Liquid Hand Soap, shown to the left, lists Triclosan as the active ingredient — in order to achieve “the gold standard for antibacterial protection.” Note that other hand sanitizers do not contain triclosan, rather listing alcohol as the active ingredient.
For a more extensive list of individual products, see Products that Contain Triclosan. Read the labels of the products you purchase; triclosan should be listed as an active ingredient.
Controversy over Health Effects
Is Triclosan harmful? The health effects of triclosan are in dispute, but there’s little doubt that you have been exposed to triclosan in everyday products. In a 2004 study, CDC scientists detected triclosan in the urine of 75 % of of the 2,500 individuals tested. Other tests have found triclosan in blood and breast milk.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) claims that, “Triclosan is not known to be hazardous to humans.” But there are concerns that triclsan may be a endocrine disruptor — affecting hormonal levels of testosterone and estrogen, and it is suspected that it may affect thyroid function. Human studies are difficult; most of these studies have been undertaken on laboratory animals. For rats, long-term exposure to triclosan resulted in a decrease in thyroid hormones.
Researchers found that exposure to triclosan resulted in tadpoles with lower body weight and deformed limbs. In addition, triclosan may contribute to the antibody-resistant bacteria. It may also be associated with a weakening of the immune system, and may be linked to cancer cell growth, and decreased fertility. See the EPA Risk Assessment data sheet and Triclosan: What the Research Shows.
Residues of triclosan have been found in indoor dust samples. The compound is also washed down household drains to enter our sewage systems and waterways — where it can be spread throughout the environment, and enter the food chain. Triclosan has been shown to be toxic to phytoplankton and shrimp. Sediment samples from freshwater lakes across Minnesota tested positive for triclosan, as well as toxic chlorinated triclosan compounds — formed when triclosan undergoes a chemical reaction in wastewater treatment plants. Canada has declared triclosan toxic to the environment.
Due to increasing public pressure, some manufacturers are voluntarily eliminating triclosan from their products. Companies such as Johnson and Johnson and Proctor and Gamble have committed to reformulating their products to phase out triclosan. Minnesota recently issued a ban on personal care products containing triclosan — due to go into effect in 2017.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has long been involved in efforts to remove triclosan from the marketplace; in 2010 the NRDC sued the FDA to force it to take action. In fact the FDA originally proposed removing triclosan from certain consumer products back in 1978. Note that the chemical’s use in food and cosmetics is regulated by the FDA, while the EPA oversees its use in fabrics and sealants. The European Union banned the chemical from food and all products that come into contact with food.
Indeed, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is revisiting the issue of triclosan’s safety, and under a new rule released in December 2013 the FDA will require manufacturers to provide evidence that the compounds triclosan and triclocarban are effective and not harmful to consumers.
A look at one product
Let’s zero in on one particular product: Colgate Total toothpaste contains 0.3% triclosan, which the company claims is helpful in fighting germs that can lead to plaque and gingivitis. Colgate’s international website advertises that its unique formula uses a copolymer to bind triclosan to the dental surface: “The Gantez copolymer enables Triclosan to continue working in the mouth for up to 12 hours. Without the copolymer, Triclosan would be rapidly lost form teeth and gums, reducing its clinical effect.” The Colgate-Palmolive Co stands by its product: “The safety of Colgate Total has been reviewed by the U.S. FDA and regulatory agencies in Europe, Canada and Australia, all of which have approved triclosan as a safe ingredient in Colgate Total.”
Most other toothpastes, such as Crest and Aqufresh are free of triclosan.
Colgate cited 80 clinical studies involving thousands of people, and at one time called Total “the most significant advancement in home dental care since the introduction of fluoride.” Triclosan was approved for use in Colgate Total back in 1997. Its 35 page application listed toxicology reports, only recently released by the FDA. And yet, the FDA’s approval relied largely on company-funded research to demonstrate that the compound was safe for human use. Even so, the application showed images of fetal bone malformations in laboratory animals.
See a timeline of this regulatory process and the article — Colgate Total Ingredient Linked to Hormones, Cancer Spotlights FDA Process — from Bloomberg News.
What can you do?
Read ingredient lists, and try to purchase products that don’t contain triclosan or triclocarban. Avoid antimicrobial and antibacterial products, wherever possible. Note that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration finds no evidence that antibacterial washes help stop the spread of germs, as compared to washing with soap and warm water. But note that you need to wash and scrub your hands for 24 seconds to reliably remove microbes from the surface.