Triclosan is an antibacterial that has been used in products such as detergents, soaps, skin cleansers, deodorants, creams and lotions, toothpastes and dishwashing liquids for nearly 40 years. Simply put, chemically, triclosan structure consists of a dichlorobenzene ring attached to oxygen, which is attached to another benzene ring with a chloro and hydroxide ion attached. It is said to target bacteria by inhibiting the synthesis of fatty acids, which are necessary for reproducing and building cell membranes.
There has been much concern by some scientists and environmentalists about triclosan’s effectiveness and safety. In fact, after pressure from non-government organizations (NGOs), market leaders such as Colgate-Palmolive, Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble and Avon Products, have all pledged, during the past year, to phase out the material in at least some of their products.
Oral Care Uses
Currently, the only triclosan benefit recognized by the FDA is its ability to prevent gingivitis when used in toothpaste. All of its presence in other products is being questioned. In regard to its use in hand soaps, opponents claim that its wide and constant usage leads to eventual resistance and immunity by bacteria to triclosan. Opponents also charge that hand washing with soap works mainly by dislodging and rinsing away bacteria and viruses on the skin rather than killing them. My own doctor says he should wash his hands for at least three minutes to give the antibacterial time to work—he did not say that he actually timed the procedure.
Triclosan is also a component in non-cosmetic products such as pesticides, mattresses, insulation and various types of flooring such as laminates, wood and carpeting for the purpose of stopping the growth of bacteria, fungi and mildew. A few years ago, researchers at the University of Minnesota discovered traces of triclosan in lake surfaces. Triclosan degrades into a type of dioxin.
However, this derivative of dioxin is not toxic to mammals, birds and fish according to the EPA and the World Health Organization.
In the fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, Centers for Disease Control scientists measured triclosan in the urine of 2,517 participants aged six years and older who took part in the National Health and Nutrition Survey during 2003 to 2004. Triclosan was detected in the urine of nearly 75% of the people tested. However, finding measurable amounts of triclosan in urine does not imply that the levels of triclosan cause an adverse health effect. The procedure was done to provide physicians and public health officials with reference values so that they can determine whether people have been exposed to higher levels of triclosan than are found in the general population.
Support from Industry
Although NGOs are a formidable opponent, triclosan does have its supporters.
“Antibacterial soaps and washes play a beneficial role in the daily hygiene routines of millions of people throughout the US and worldwide,” noted Richard Sedlak, senior vice president, American Cleaning Institute. “They have been and are used safely and effectively in homes, hospitals and workplaces every single day.”
Sedlak also pointed out that antibacterial hand washes provide a public health benefit by reducing or eliminating pathogenic bacteria on the skin to a significantly greater degree than plain soap and water.
“The bacterial reduction from hand washing is linked to reduced infection from pathogenic bacteria,” he explained.
Because it is found in so many different types of products, triclosan is regulated by three different federal agencies: FDA, EPA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. But the FDA, which oversees its use in personal care products, medical devices, and products that come into contact with food, has been working since the 1970s to establish the rules for the use of triclosan has not completed that task. The latest situation is that the FDA proposed a new rule that would require manufacturers to provide more substantial data to demonstrate the safety and effectiveness of antibacterial soaps. Stay tuned.
Harvey M. Fishman
Harvey Fishman has a consulting firm in Wanaque, NJ, specializing in cosmetic formulations and new product ideas, offering tested finished products. He has more than 30 years of experience and has been director of research at Bonat, Nestlé LeMur and Turner Hall. He welcomes descriptive literature from suppliers and bench chemists and others in the field.