Triclosan in Antibacterial Products: Harmful or Helpful?

Triclosan, a synthetic, broad-spectrum antimicrobial agent, has been added to various products including soaps, cosmetics, fabrics, and plastics since the 1970s. While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) asserts that triclosan is not known to be harmful to humans, they also state that regulators do not have scientific research demonstrating its safety and effectiveness. Recent studies raise concerns that triclosan may alter hormone regulation and promote the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In response, the FDA plans to deliver a review this year on the effectiveness and safety of the product. What exactly are the risks? Are there things you should do to protect your family?

 

Recent studies raise concerns about the effects of the antimicrobial agent known as triclosan. Do the benefits of the product outweigh the risks?

Endocrine concerns

Studies in rats have shown that triclosan decreases levels of testosterone and sperm production in males and alters levels of estrogen and thyroid hormones in females. Signs of early puberty have also been seen in females. In pregnant sheep, researchers have found that triclosan interferes with the transfer of estrogen to growing fetuses (estrogen is important in fetal development regardless of the gender of the fetus).

Up until this point, almost all of the studies conducted on triclosan’s effects have been animal studies. These risky outcomes in the animal studies are red flags because humans often experience similar effects to those seen in animals. It is important to remember that though this is frequently the case, there are exceptions. This means studies in humans are desperately needed.

Antibiotic resistance concerns

In laboratory settings, bacteria have become resistant to triclosan after exposure to increasing amounts of it. Environmental studies have not shown similar outcomes. However, given that triclosan’s availability to consumers is relatively recent and that bacterial resistance to antibiotics occurs in a step-wise manner, researchers warn that it may be too early to determine what role, if any, triclosan plays in the development of antibiotic-resistant organisms.

Who is exposed to triclosan?

If you use antibacterial soap, it likely contains triclosan (75% of such products do). Whether or not you use antibacterial soap, you likely encounter triclosan in other everyday products. During 2003 and 2004, the CDC tested 2,517 individuals aged 6 years and older and found that nearly 75% of them had triclosan in their urine. How can you find out if a product contains triclosan? Simply look at the label. Triclosan will be listed as an active ingredient if the product contains it.

Protecting yourself and your family

Given that the FDA has no evidence that many of these products that contain triclosan provide any benefit over their triclosan-free counterparts, I see no reason to expose myself to the potential risks. While there may be a place for triclosan in certain settings (such as healthcare centers), I believe the available evidence indicates the risks of using everyday products that contain triclosan outweigh the benefits. Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to avoid triclosan by checking product labels. Out of caution, some companies have moved to eradicate triclosan from their products. For example, Johnson & Johnson has promised to remove triclosan from all of its products by the end of 2015 (its baby products are already free of it). If you would like more information on triclosan, check out my sources: CBS News, FDA, and The Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics.

Do you use many antibacterial products? Were you aware of the potential risks of triclosan? Do you plan to begin (or continue) avoiding triclosan-containing products?

Comments

  1. This is a great reminder of the need to be an informed consumer. I guess I often assume that products must be safe if the FDA and other regulators allow them to be sold. Truthfully, the onus is on me to make sure the items I purchase are safe. I think I need to apply more scrutiny.
    I don’t make a habit of purchasing antibacterial products, but I’m sure I’ve made some purchases over the years. I’ll going to be much more careful about reading labels. Will you let us know when the FDA report comes out?

  2. Charlotte Thiel says:

    Actually I have a daughter who had already warned me about triclosan. I still have a note about the name on my refrigerator to remind me.

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