Spotlight On: Triclosan


Antibacterial hand gels with Triclosan: yay or nay?

Dear Nicki,

Do you think triclosan is bad for you?

-Jen

Dear Jen,

Triclosan is an antibacterial and antifungal agent used in many beauty and personal care products, ranging from antibacterial hand soaps to toothpaste.  In 1997, the FDA reviewed the efficacy of triclosan in Colgate Total toothpaste, and revealed triclosan in this product was effective in preventing gingivitis.  However, the FDA will not release the efficacy of triclosan in other products until sometime in winter 2012.

What does triclosan do?

TriclosanTriclosan is a type of alcohol known as a phenol.  Triclosan inhibits bacterial growth by preventing essential bacterial lipid (fat) synthesis with the cells.   A white powdered solid, Triclosan is easily incorporated into deodorants, toothpastes, shaving creams, and cleaning supplies in concentrations of 0.01-0.1%.

Numerous studies have shown Triclosan is effective in controlling bacterial growth of many species, including the very-hard-to-control MRSA (Journal of Hospital Infection, 2006).  As such, Triclosan is now incorporated up to 2% in kitchen trash bags, carpet padding, and some toys.  You may recognize it in these items under names like Microban, UltraFresh, Amicor, and BioFresh.

Is triclosan safe?

This situation is not safe. Thus far, scientific evidence largely shows Triclosan is safe for humans in typical concentrations.

Most scientists say yes.  A review of seven studies published in Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy found no link between Triclosan use and bacterial resistance over the short term, despite earlier speculation that this may be the case.  However, long-term studies need to be conducted before we can safely affirm Triclosan is not linked to microbial resistance.

The internet screams threats that Triclosan may cause thyroid problems.   These rumors stem from the fact that Triclosan has been found to decrease thyroid hormone production in the American bullfrog (Aquatic Toxicology, 2005). In the bullfrog, this occurs because Triclosan looks a lot like thyroid hormone.  So much, in fact, that Triclosan binds to thyroid hormone receptors.  Because the adrenal glands produce thyroid hormone when the thyroid hormone receptors are empty, Triclosan filling the receptors theoretically could prevent the body from producing as much thyroid hormone.  Clearly it does in the bullfrog, but not significantly in humans:  A three-year study of 132 subjects confirmed Triclosan exposure from toothpaste had no statistically significant effect on thyroid function (The Science of the Total Environment, 2012).

Does triclosan dry out the skin?

For some individuals, significantly; for others, somewhat.  Triclosan has been associated with a skin condition known as allergic contact dermatitis (Dermatologic Surgery, 2009), which is characterized by some combination of itching, dryness, redness, or irritation in the area of contact.  Triclosan is a phenol, which means it tends to be formulated in products a bit higher on the pH scale, where cleansing agents can deter protein and lipid production, resulting in drier skin (Dermatologic Therapy, 2004) even without the allergic reaction.

Is Triclosan bad for the environment?

coral reef

Floridian coral reefs are great for algae. Triclosan is not.

Somewhat.  A 2010 study in Aquatic Toxicology found Triclosan inhibits the growth of algae, which help to regulate the air by undergoing a large part of earth’s photosynthesis.  Triclosan has also been found to degrade slowly, as it has been found in this study to be a part of sediment that was 30 years old.

Bottom Line

It is not reasonable within the scientific community to conclude Triclosan effects thyroid hormone production or causes cancer in humans.  It has also been determined Triclosan can help to prevent gingivitis when it is included within toothpaste.  Still, given its slow degradation rate and (more relevant for this blog) potential for skin irritation, it may be best to skip the Triclosan until the FDA releases its final report this winter.  Another reason to withhold: A 2010 study from the University of Michigan School of Public Health concluded no difference between regular soap and 0.1% Triclosan anti-bacterial soaps.  I think I’ll stick to washing my hands for a full minute with regular soap rather than risking skin irritation with quick-wash gel!

What are your thoughts on Triclosan?  Let us know in Comments below!

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