The Chemical Marketplace: Triclosan

More than 80,000 chemicals are produced and used in United States. This is one of their stories.

I was reading my toothpaste tube the other day and noticed something I hadn't expected in the list of "active ingredients." In addition to the familiar-sounding hexafluoride, I found triclosan. Doing a little more detective work, I discovered that same ingredient on the labels of a variety of personal care products including deodorants, soaps, shaving creams, and mouthwash. A little more snooping on the Internet revealed that triclosan is also added to cleaning products like dishwashing liquids, as well as toys, socks, and trash bags. Impressive but ...

What Is This Pervasive Stuff Called 'Triclosan'?

Triclosan's actual chemical name is 5-Chloro-2-(2,4-dichlorophenoxy)phenol, which makes it a chlorinated aromatic hydrocarbon. Another one of those halogenated hydrocarbons, like PCBs, DDT and Freons, that seem to have magical properties and often end up doing a whole lot of mischief. 

According to Ciba -- a conglomerate owned by the Germany-based BASF that aims, its web site reads, to "produc[e] high-value effects for its customers' products" -- triclosan was developed in Ciba's labs 40 years ago. The product is sold by Ciba/BASF under the brand name Ciba Irgasan. Other companies now produce and sell it too. It is the active ingredient in Microban and BioFresh products. Triclosan is the generic name.

Why Is Triclosan in My Toothpaste and Shaving Cream?

The key to triclosan's presence in consumer products is its antibacterial properties; its antifungal and antiviral effects make it an attractive prospect too. There's no question that we're all increasingly concerned about the spread of disease -- staph infections in hospitals, salmonella from contaminated cooking surfaces, influenza from shaking hands. We are bombarded by advice to get clean, wash our hands and wipe down the counters -- to be as antiseptic as possible. So, one would ask, why not add an extra layer of safety through something like triclosan to as many things as we can think of?

Indeed, Ciba claims that for "more than 40 years ... [triclosan] has proven itself time and again to be a safe, reliable high-quality antimicrobial ingredient used in many well-known consumer, healthcare and professional products."

Do We Really Need It?

I am sure that triclosan is, as Ciba claims, a reliable antimicrobial (depending on its concentrations). But how useful is it really?

  • For example, some studies do suggest that triclosan added to toothpaste does a better job of eliminating bacteria from your mouth than triclosan-free toothpaste.
  • On the other hand, both a Food and Drug Administration panel from 2005 and a University of Michigan study from 2007 concluded that regular old soap was just as good at getting rid of the microbes as the souped-up antibacterial soaps.

And here's another thing or two:

  • While triclosan has some antiviral properties, studies (like this one) suggest it's not terribly effective.
  • Triclosan, a nonspecific biocide, kills microbes indiscriminately -- including microbes, like those in our gut, that are beneficial.
  • The use of antibacterials is a double-edged sword: the more they're used, the less effective they become, as the microbes they're designed to attack develop resistance. (Note: this doesn't happen with soap and water since the effective agent in that case is simply the washing away of microbes.)

That Stuff in Toothpaste and Antibacterial Soaps Is a Pesticide

And what about its safety?

Triclosan is a pesticide. It has been registered as such since 1969. And under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, the Environmental Protection Agency regulates its uses. The agency is currently in the midst of a reregistration of the chemical as a pesticide, and plans a comprehensive review of its health effects starting in 2013.

The use of triclosan in consumer products falls under regulation by the FDA.

The jury it still out on triclosan's effects on human health, but there are suggestions that they may not be good.

  • Studies show that triclosan is linked to bacterial resistance and impairment of thyroid function in animals.
  • And it's not just triclosan itself, but also the chemical's byproducts that potentially pose a danger. Mixing triclosan in tap water can lead to the production of the gas chloroform, a carcinogen and nervous system depressant.
  • Other triclosan breakdown products include dioxins. A study published last week in Environmental Science & Technology by Jeffery Buth of the University of Minnesota and colleagues found that increases in dioxins derived from triclosan in stream beds over the past 30 years correlate closely with the increase in triclosan use. Such findings indicate that, given declining levels of dioxin from other sources, triclosan use may become an important source of dioxins in the environment.

In the meantime, triclosan keeps showing up in strange and unexpected
places. Studies [pdf] have found it in human breast milk, urine and blood.

Interestingly (and worrisomely?), a study of Swedish mothers even found triclosan in the blood and breast milk of women who did not use personal care products with triclosan -- the implication being that their exposure likely came from products that included but were not labeled with triclosan.

Triclosan's definitely in the water and sediments of our streams, lakes and estuaries too, which in turn could have gotten there by way of wastewater treatment plants where a small percent is known to pass through. (See here, here, and here.)

So What's To Be Done?

The FDA asserts it doesn't have enough information to change its recommendations for the time being, but, in light of recent questions, is performing a safety review that's due out next spring.

In the meantime each one of us is on our own where triclosan is concerned. Many decisions we make in life are about choosing between different levels of risk, and this is one more. Is the risk from the presence of microbes in your mouth or armpits or on your hands worth the risk of putting a pesticide on and in your body? If the answer is no, you'd better start paying closer attention to the active ingredients listed in the fine print of the labels of products you pile into your supermarket cart. I know I will.

Further Reading

  • For a full database of information on triclosan, go here and type "triclosan" into the search box at the top left of the page (then click "Go").
  • Triclosan [CAS 3380-34-5] - Supporting Information for Toxicological Evaluation by the National Toxicology Program - FDA and Department of Health and Human Services -
  • "Water Pollution Caused by Cosmetic Chemicals, Cleaning Supplies and Plastics: » Triclosan" - Environmental Working Group -

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