Antibacterial products for the home that contain triclosan have never been proved to be effective, and there's evidence to suggest they could actually be harming your family, according to a growing number of public health organizations and scientific studies.
While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) still hasn't determined it's "safe and effective"—a process it started 35 years ago—triclosan and its cousin triclocarban remain in products on store shelves because of a loophole. The monograph determining the chemical's effectiveness and safety has not been finalized—for decades.
"Consumers are paying extra for something they think is giving them a benefit," explains Sarah Janssen, MD, PHD, MPH, senior scientist of the health program at Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a human and environmental health watchdog group. "There's no evidence of any added benefit, and a lot of concern over the safety of this chemical."
Given that the FDA has had nearly four decades to look at triclosan, NRDC filed a lawsuit for "unreasonable delay," and the case is still pending. FDA recently announced it would look at triclosan once and for all this year, something it also said last year, but it didn't happen.
Here's what we do know:
• Triclosan in soap is no more effective than washing with regular soap and water; FDA's own independent panel agrees
• Triclosan is inside of most of us. According to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention testing, it turns up in about 75 percent of people tested
• After we wash triclosan down the drain, wastewater-treatment plants cannot effectively remove it from the water, where it goes on to harm aquatic life
• Johns Hopkins University has identified triclosan as one of the top 10 contaminants in waterways
• Some triclosan also winds up in the sewage sludge left behind in wastewater-treatment plants; every year, about 200 tons of triclocarban and triclosan are applied to farmlands nationwide
• Triclosan has turned up inside of carrots, soybeans, pumpkins, and zucchinis
• Triclosan has been linked to the rise in antibiotic-resistant superbugs, thyroid damage, improper brain and nervous system functioning, poor sperm quality, weakened immune systems, and weaker muscle contracting, including less efficient heart pumping.
Governments are waking up to the fact that stopping triclosan before it reaches wastewater-treatment plants can reduce pollution and the need to install ultra-high-tech filtration systems that would cost taxpayers money.
For example, Minnesota state agencies will no longer purchase products containing triclosan, and some municipalities in California are doing the same, and are urging consumers to give up these antibacterial agents. Industry is responding as well. In 2012, Johnson and Johnson said it would phase out use of triclosan in its products. Softsoap removed triclosan from its formulations, too, and did not replace it with other questionable antimicrobials the way some other companies did.
Here's where triclosan could be hiding…
Where It Could Hide: Antibacterial soaps, toothpaste, makeup, acne treatments, mouthwash, first aid care, deodorant, body washes
Where It Could Hide: Dish soap, hand soap, cutting boards, mop heads, utensils, cleaners
Where It Could Hide: Socks, underwear, sports clothing, mattress covers, dehumidifiers
The Living Room
Where It Could Hide: Remote controls, vacuum cleaners, flooring, air filters, furniture
Where It Could Hide: Coolers, paint, tools
Where It Could Hide: Pencils, notebooks, rulers, scissors, binders, mouse pads
4 Ways to Avoid Triclosan:
1. Triclosan or its closely related cousin, triclocarban, legally must appear on the ingredients label if it's used in any personal care product sold in the United States, so it's relatively easy to avoid for things you'd put on or in your body. If you're not able to wash with regular soap and water, alcohol-based products containing at least 62 percent alcohol effectively kill germs.
2. For products other than those for personal care, it gets a little trickier. The following words could signal triclosan or other questionable germ-killing chemicals are impregnated into the products. Items labeled as being "antibacterial," "antimicrobial," or things making germ-fighting or odor-free claims could contain triclosan or other questionable antimicrobial agents. Microban uses several different antimicrobial agents, and triclosan is one of them.
3. If you're not sure, call a product's manufacturer and ask if it contains triclosan or another antimicrobial chemical before purchasing the product.
4. Eat organic. Organic agriculture bans the use of sewage sludge or "biosolids," the solids taken from wastewater-treatment plants that are often laced with triclosan and other nasty chemicals.
Bonus tip: Question other antimicrobial agents, too. Some companies are replacing triclosan with nanoparticle silver, which is able to cross the blood-brain barrier, possibly harming the brain and liver. Other companies are trading in triclosan for benzalkonium chloride, a sensitizer that may cause allergic reactions and asthma.
Published on: May 6, 2013
Updated on: May 7, 2013