Troubles with Triclosan

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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.

Notice that triclosan is listed as an ingredient in the upper left corner.

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

I found this in the bedding section at Target. Notice in the bottom right corner the word “Biofresh.” Biofresh contains triclosan.

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

“Superbug” creation

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

hand-washing-660While 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

This antibacterial soap contains triclocarban, a cousin to triclosan. Plain soap works just as well.

 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!