I was reading toothpaste labels a while back (doesn’t everyone?), and saw an “active ingredient” I’d never heard of before…triclosan. Of course, I needed to find out all about it, so I looked it up. In the case of toothpaste, it is added because triclosan is extremely effective at fighting tooth decay and gum disease.1,2,3 This immediately made me wonder if adding triclosan to toothpaste was a good idea.
What is it?
Triclosan is a synthetic antibacterial and antifungal agent that has been used in hospital settings since the 1970s. It is very effective at curtailing common bacteria that regularly make us sick like Strep, Staph, E. coli and especially that really nasty bacterium MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.)4,5 Today, the use of triclosan is not limited to the medical field or hospitals. This is not good.
Products that contain triclosan
Triclosan use has leapt into the consumer market and has been incorporated into hundreds of products we use everyday.4 A quick search of Environmental Working Group’s database shows at least 150 brand name personal care products that contain triclosan.6 Here are two additional lists from the National Institute of Health listing products containing triclosan and its cousin triclocarban. These lists are by no means complete.
Here are the kinds of products where you are most likely to encounter triclosan: Antibacterial soaps, dishwashing products, laundry detergents, fabric softener, plastics (i.e., toys, cutting boards, kitchen utensils), school supplies, toothpaste, toothbrushes and mouthwashes, deodorants, antiperspirants, cosmetics, shaving creams, acne treatment products, hair conditioners, bedding, trash bags, “no stink” socks and undershirts, hot tubs, plastic lawn furniture, surgical scrubs, mattresses, carpet padding, plastic shopping carts, gymnastic and wrestling mats, and even the kitchen sink faucet.7
You may never have heard of this chemical, but 75% of people in the U.S. tested showed traces of it in their system.8
So what’s the problem with triclosan?
Seems like fewer germs would be good thing. Well, not exactly.
Dr. Gonzo’s top reasons to avoid triclosan laced products:
- Creation of antibiotic resistant bacteria, AKA “superbugs”9,10,11
- It’s a documented endocrine disrupting chemical6,12,13,14,15,16
- Scores as a “high hazard” in Skin Deep data base6
- It’s banned in Europe and in Canada5
- It doesn’t really work better than soap and water17
Anyone who has had a conversation with a pediatrician or listens to the news, knows that overuse of antibiotics can lead to serious consequences for our society. When people use antibacterial products indiscriminately or don’t finish the complete course of antibiotics, the weakest bacteria are killed off, and the “strongest” bacteria are able to survive and keep breeding. These strong bacteria become increasingly hardy over time as society continues to use antibiotics improperly. The result is the current national emergency that we are experiencing with so many drug resistant bacteria!
Constant exposure to triclosan in everyday products causes these resistant strains to increasingly tolerate triclosan resulting in the development of cross-resistant bacteria that are resistant to both triclosan and antibiotics.4 This has already happened for many drugs and could very well happen for triclosan. Bacteria resistant to triclosan will be an enormous problem for our society and especially people who are very sick or have compromised immune systems. If this drug resistant trend continues, we will have absolutely NO medicines to help them.5
The American Medical Association recommends that no antimicrobial agents should be added to consumer products due to risk of acquired bacterial resistance.18
Not all germs are bad
Because triclosan is a broad-spectrum antibiotic, it kills the good bacteria that keep us healthy. Many “friendly” bacteria produce beneficial effects such as aiding metabolism and inhibiting the invasion of harmful bacteria that make us sick. Using antibacterial products results in our own decreased ability to fight off bad germs.
Microbes are a part of life on planet earth and I have no problems with my kids being exposed to them at school or playing in the dirt. Exposure to germs helps them to build a healthy immune system. Let’s save the antibacterial and antibiotic drugs for when they are really needed, and try to get over this “germaphobia” so prevalent in our society.
Documented endocrine disrupting chemical
For many years triclosan was thought to be completely safe, but in the past couple years, concern has been raised over the results from a number of studies showing triclosan’s potential for thyroid hormone disruptions.19,15,16 If you’ve read my previous blog Fragrance Faux Pas, you know that endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) can really mess with human hormones.
Rated as “high hazard” by Environmental Working Group
One of my favorite trusted databases is the Environmental Working Group’s website. I especially like the Skin Deep app that calculates a safety score based on many factors including research and scientific studies. The safety score for triclosan is a disappointing “7” which means it is considered a “high caution” and should be avoided.
Banned in the European Union and Canada
I often take my cues from the EU when it comes to health and safety of products. They are much more cautious about subjecting their citizens to harmful chemicals. In 2010, the European Union (EU) banned triclosan from any products that may come into contact with food, and in 2009 the Canadian Medical Association asked the Canadian government to ban triclosan use in household products over concerns of creating bacterial resistance and producing dangerous side products. U.S. Federal agencies are still reviewing triclosan‘s safety but haven‘t called for altered usage yet.5
I’m not waiting for the Feds to tell me if it’s safe. I’ve read the studies, and I won’t use it or have it in my home.
It doesn’t work better than soap and water
While investigating this topic, I was surprised and relieved to learn that using antibacterial soaps of any kind, including those containing triclosan, were no better at preventing the spread of gastrointestinal and respiratory infections than good old soap and water! 17, 20
According to the Centers for Disease Control, vigorous hand washing in warm water with plain soap for at least 10 seconds is sufficient to fight germs, even for healthcare workers. For added assurance, use an alcohol- or peroxide-based hand sanitizing product.5
Dr. Gonzo’s easy ideas to avoid triclosan and remain healthy
- Read labels and look for triclosan (and related triclocarban) in personal care products, especially products with the words “antibacterial or odor-fighting”
- Avoid toys or products with the words “Microban” or “Biofresh”
- Avoid anti-bacterial cutting boards or kitchenware
- Use the Skin Deep app to find safe personal care products
- Wash your hands regularly with plain soap and water
- If no sink is available, use alcohol- or peroxide-based hand sanitizers
- When someone is sick at your house, use disposable paper towels so as not to spread germs on cloth towels
I’m all for using triclosan in a hospital or other health care settings. Triclosan is an important health care tool, especially for people with serious illnesses and/or weakened immune systems. But we, as a community, need to get over our need to sanitize everything we touch, and use antibacterials and antibiotics judiciously.
See you next time!
Is there anything more luscious than sniffing a freshly bathed baby that has been slathered in great smelling baby products? Before I knew about the adverse health consequences of fragrance, I’m afraid I was very guilty of this mothering ritual.
To expand on the theme from my last post about the fragrance in scented candles, I’d like to explain further why fragrances in products could be harmful to your health and especially to the health of your kids. I’ll also suggest great smelling options to satisfy your olfactory cravings.
Manufacturers know that we love our fragrances and that it sells, so they add it to virtually every product…cosmetics, air fresheners, plastic toys, garbage bags, diapers, tissues and toilet paper…even the smelly markers we buy our kids for school! The problem is that our bodies never get a break from fragrance. Even when we go to sleep, our sheets and jammies emit fragrance.
What’s wrong with good smelling stuff?
Here are Dr. Gonzo’s top reasons we should not buy products that list “fragrance” as an ingredient.
- Undisclosed chemicals1,2,3
- Leading cause of skin irritation1,4
- Causes allergic reactions4
- Exposure associated with asthma2
- Probably contains endocrine disrupting chemicals or EDCs5,6,7
Why is fragrance added to products?
Sometimes fragrance is added to create a signature scent (i.e. Johnson’s baby products), or a more “natural” aroma (i.e. “spring breeze” dryer sheets), or maybe to mask the odor of one of the other ingredients in the product (household cleaners) or even to create an “unscented” product.
Here’s the problem…
Many products list “fragrance” on the label, but few name the specific ingredients that make up the fragrance. Manufacturers are not required by law to do so. This lack of disclosure prevents consumers from knowing the full list of ingredients in their products.
Tests conducted on 70 commercial perfume samples in 2011 showed that the average number of allergy producing chemicals in perfumes and cologne is twelve.8 To top it off, 100% samples of perfumes contained phthalates, a proven family of EDCs. Other tests show that the products containing the most EDCs were colognes/perfumes, dryer sheets, car air fresheners and sunscreens.9
When government agencies determine chemical toxicity, they test it in isolation. What they do not account for, are the results of using more than one product at a time. Many fragranced products also contain other EDCs, like parabens10 (more on this in future post.) Using multiple products, which we ALL do, can result in exceeding the “safe limit” of the chemical tested and amplification of the effects of the chemicals when the products are used together.
Let’s look at the fragranced products an average person uses on a typical day:
- Body wash
- Hand or body lotion
- Hair mousse or gel
- Deodorant (the heavily scented kind teenage guys use is the worst)
- Perfume or cologne
- Nail polish!!! (More in a later post)
Yikes! And all this before you even put on your clothes, made fresh by your “country breeze” dryer sheets. Now go through the list of products that are used on babies and kids. It’s probably not as long, but similar. As I mentioned in Hormone Havoc, the effects of these chemicals are more serious in children, especially baby boys.7
You can still use great smelling products!
Now that you’re completely freaked out, let’s look at what you can buy that is safe AND smells great.
You are in luck! There are thousands of products on the market that do not contain troublesome “fragrances” and still smell great. Below is what I do to determine if a product is worthy of purchase.
Dr. Gonzo’s Safe Fragrance Checklist:
- I look at the front label. If a company makes a product that is phthalate-free or paraben-free, you bet they will put it on the label!
- I look at the list of ingredients. If it says ‘fragrance,” I don’t buy it….even though I love the smell.
- I don’t buy “unscented” products. Unscented does not mean no added fragrance. In fact unscented products may contain chemicals to mask the odor of the ingredients. I buy “fragrance free” which means no added fragrance.
- Are essential oils used for fragrance? Essential oils (not really oils but plant concentrates) are safe for most people, but some may be sensitive to specific ones. Note: fragrance oils and essential oils are not the same thing.
- Finally, and probably the best tip…I almost always use the little gem of an app called “Skin Deep” by the Environmental Working Group. When I’m standing in the store with a GAZILLION choices in front of me, I simply open the app, scan the barcode, and look up the safety score. If it’s a 1 or 2 (out of 10) and it contains no fragrance, I buy it with confidence.
Below are examples of product labels advertising they are free of parabens and phthalates. Some I have in my home, others I found at my local grocery store. I use the Mrs. Meyers lavender laundry scent booster, which uses only essential oils, the air freshener uses essential oils from orange and cinnamon and anise, and the Honestly Free label is from the Honest Company’s Shampoo and body wash. The shampoo absolutely luscious and smells like an orange Dreamsicle and my kids love it!
I know you really want me to just tell you which brands are safe to buy. But formulations change from year to year and sometimes a couple times in a year. You really need to learn to read the label and use the app.
Here is a great example. I bought “Aveeno Daily Moisturizing Lotion” because it had no fragrance and a Skin Deep score of 2. I noticed that the manufacturer was Johnson & Johnson, and I know that they also make baby products. I went to the website to check out the ingredients in their baby products….no luck. Next I called the customer hot line to inquire about the ingredients. Yes indeed, the lady informed me that “fragrance” was an ingredient in all the baby products. The Skin Deep app lists the score of this particular baby product as a 4 (moderate hazard). But with a little more digging, I noticed that the fragrances in the products scored an 8!! Notice also, this product contains even more EDCs… parabens. The propylparaben listed is rated a 7 (high hazard) by the Environmental Working Group. I sincerely doubt new moms would want to put these wonderful smelling products on their newborn babes if they knew they contained ingredients rated as a “high hazard.”
My best advice is to skip the fragrance on everyday products to limit chemical exposure as much as possible. Then, choose a few choice products scented with essential oils or phthalate-free scents, and save the perfume for special occasions.
Following these easy tips, you can feel confident about buying safe and good smelling personal care products. Be proactive and tell others. The more consumers vote with their dollars, the more companies will listen, and the more safe choices you’ll have.
See you next time!
This is a first post in a series, which explains how and why it is essential for you try and steer clear of a class of chemicals known as endocrine disrupting chemicals or EDCs. Over the next few posts, I will discuss typical household products that contain EDCs and suggest safe alternatives.
What are EDCs?
As you probably know, the endocrine system governs all the hormones in our bodies. Hormones regulate nearly every aspect of our daily lives including metabolism, growth and development, tissue function, sexual function, reproduction, sleep, and mood, just to name a few.
EDCs are natural or manmade substances, external to the body, that directly alter the function of the endocrine system, and cause negative health effects1. EDCs are a genuine health concern because they can really mess with chemical signaling within cells and wreak havoc with our hormones.
How do EDCs work?
EDCs can disrupt normal hormone activity by:
- Mimicking our natural hormones like estrogens (the female sex hormone), androgens (the male sex hormone), and thyroid hormones.
- Binding to cells preventing hormones from doing their job.
- Interfere or block the way our hormones are made.
Consequences of hormone disruption
Over the past few decades, the consequences of EDCs in our environment have been studied extensively. Scientists now have a really good idea of how powerful and damaging these chemicals can be. Some EDCs are so damaging, that the FDA, EPA and CDC have mandated bans on their use…remember DDT and Agent Orange?
There are so many adverse effects to EDC exposure that the list is too long to print here. However, scientists and doctors belonging to the Endocrine Society recently issued a statement linking everything listed below to EDC exposure2.
- Hormone-sensitive cancers (testicular, breast, endometrial, thyroid and prostate)3
- Obesity and cardiovascular disease4, 5
- Onset of Type 2 Diabetes6
- Onset of asthma7
- Female reproduction toxicity8
- Decline in quality and quantity of male sperm3
- Deleterious effects on fetal neural development 9
- Early puberty in girls10
Have you been exposed to EDCs?
Unfortunately, if you live in any industrialized country, the answer is a resounding “yes.” EDCs are ubiquitous in our surroundings because they are found in the soil, air, and drinking water and in loads of everyday products– including plastic bottles, carpet, electronics, furniture, metal food cans, fragrances, detergents, fabric softeners, flame-retardant clothing, pharmaceuticals, food, toys, cosmetics, and pesticides. Wow!
The effects on children are compounded. Why? Because children are not just tiny adults. As a percentage of their body weight, they breathe more air, drink more water, and eat more food than adults. This is because their organs are undergoing rapid change and development. To top it off, we unwittingly expose them to personal care products, toys, and clothing that contain EDCs. Research shows that EDCs may pose the greatest risk during prenatal and early postnatal development when organ and neural systems are forming.11
Don’t these products have to be safe to be on the market?
No. The majority of the more than 2,000 chemicals that come onto the market every year do not go through even the simplest tests to determine toxicity. Even when some tests are carried out, most do not assess whether a chemical has endocrine disrupting properties.12
Further, manufacturers don’t have to list all the ingredients on their labels because they are considered proprietary, or “trade secrets.” It is practically impossible for a consumer to actually know what is in a product.
You’re freakin’ me out…what should I do?
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be discussing easy ways for you to limit exposure to EDCs. Fortunately, there are a bunch of things you can do to get started right away13.
- Buy organic foods when possible. Refer to my post Biggest Bang for your Organic Produce Buck.
- Avoid drinking water from disposable plastic water bottles.
- Get a water filter that will remove pesticides, lead and heavy metals. Click here for recommendations.
- Eat fewer animal products. EDCs can accumulate in milk and animal tissues.
- Don’t store food in plastic containers. Use glass instead.
- Avoid personal care products that list “fragrance” in the ingredients. More about this biggie in a later post.
- Get a HEPA filter and HEPA bag for your vacuum cleaner to cut down on toxic EDC laden dust generated by furniture, carpet and electronics.
- Minimize use of canned foods and don’t buy infant formula in cans. The can liner contains EDCs.
- Skip the non-stick pans unless they are “green” non-stick pans.
Stay tuned over the next few weeks for more detailed descriptions about which products to avoid and which products and brands are safe.
See you next time!