Triclosan is becoming a household name, although it's a chemical you certainly should evict from your home. Several years ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a federal notice requesting environmental impact data regarding the use of the controversial antimicrobial ingredient triclosan in consumer products for acne, plaque, and gingivitis. While it may seem like good news that the agency is looking into potential environmental harm associated with the chemical germ killer, public-health advocates explain this step is a necessary part of the National Environmental Protection Act when the agency is considering expanding the use of a chemical as an active ingredient in more over-the-counter products. "This is likely someone in industry asking to use triclosan as an active ingredient in some acne product or mouthwash," explains Kathy Dolan, MHS, the triclosan campaign advocate at Food & Water Watch, a consumer-watchdog group. Fast forward to today and the harmful ingredient is still in a wide array of everyday products.
Triclosan is already the active ingredient in many soaps and some toothpastes, but the latest FDA move could approve its use in higher concentrations in over-the-counter acne treatments and mouthwash products. Many other kinds of products are impregnated with triclosan, such as plastic, clothing, underwear, shoes, toys, and other children's products. No studies have found the estrogenic chemical triclosan to be more effective at killing germs than regular soap and water (even though it's used in many soaps and hand sanitizers), but many have studies have uncovered scientific evidence that the chemical is contributing to the surge in life-threatening, antibiotic-resistant supergerms and severe hormone disruption in wildlife. (When it's found in waterways, for example, male frogs literally sport female parts.)
Like BPA, there is plenty of science to show that triclosan is a hormone-disrupting chemical. Which should give us all pause because we already come in contact with the chemical in soaps and many other consumer products. Complicating matters, Dolan says wastewater treatment plants cannot completely get it out of water that's released back into the environment, so it could wind up in groundwater drinking supplies.
Congress is also taking up this issue. Last week, the House Subcommittee on Energy and Commerce met to discuss the issue of endocrine disrupters in drinking water. The meeting was convened by Representative Edward Markey (D-Mass), who earlier this year called on the EPA and FDA to take a closer look at triclosan. "Despite serious questions regarding the safety of these potentially dangerous products, these substances seem to exist in a regulatory black hole," Markey said last month. "We must ensure that these products, which are widely used in soaps, toothpaste, and other products, kill germs without adversely impacting human health." So far, evidence suggests we should be phasing out the chemical rather than expanding its use in more consumer products, says Dolan.
To help steer clear of triclosan, become a skeptical shopper. It's relatively easy to avoid triclosan in personal-care products because the law requires it to be printed on the ingredients list. It's used in many antibacterial soaps, some sanitizers, and toothpaste; check Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database to find safer alternatives.
Triclosan is also impregnated into many other products, from textiles to shoes to plastic toys—even kids' rulers and lunch sacks. These product labels may list Microban or Irgasan, which are other names for triclosan. If you see these terms, or words like "antimicrobial" or "odor-free," pick something untreated. "I'd hate to see more triclosan on the market. Hopefully, it won't be a case of innocent until proven guilty; it should be proven safe before it goes on the market," says Dolan.
Published on: March 1, 2010
Updated on: October 15, 2013