What is "triclosan," and why is it in antibacterial soaps?
Triclosan is a chemical compound that can prevent the growth of bacteria. It's not just in antibacterial soaps: clothing, furniture, toys, toothpaste, kitchenware and cosmetics also contain triclosan and its chemical cousin, triclocarban. Manufacturers add these ingredients to prevent bacteria from growing in or on their products.
That sounds like a good thing. I want my soap to get rid of germs.
Everyone does, but triclosan doesn't get rid of germs any better than regular soap. Study after study have found that all soaps are antibacterial, and hands that are washed with regular soap are just as clean and germ-free as hands washed with soap that contains triclosan. In other words, it does nothing to help clean hands.
Then why do manufacturers add triclosan to things like soap?
Marketing, for the most part. There is some evidence that triclosan in toothpaste helps to prevent gingivitis, according to the FDA, which also states that "For other consumer products, FDA has not received evidence that the triclosan provides an extra benefit to health." Allison Aiello, PhD, a leading researcher at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, has stated, "It doesn't seem like there's a place for these chemicals in consumer soap at this point."
Does the industry agree with that?
Not according to their press material. The Soap and Detergent Association and the Personal Care Products Council have repeatedly claimed that antibacterial ingredients are safe and effective. But not everyone's buying that line: in 2010, Congressman Edward Markey
(D-MA) introduced legislation that would ban the use of triclosan in soaps and cosmetics
Is triclosan actually dangerous?
There's no evidence (yet) that triclosan can harm human health. However, studies in animals have found that it disrupts hormone levels; in that regard, triclosan joins other compounds like bisphenol A
and some pesticides like DDT
. There has not yet been any research that can definitively link triclosan to birth defects, brain damage or any of the harmful effects of these other hormone disruptors, but more studies are needed to determine just how safe it is.
So if I just quit using antibacterial soaps, I should be fine, right?
Maybe. Because triclosan is found in so many common household and commercial products, it's hard to get away from. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times
, "A national health survey found triclosan in the urine of 75% of the 2,517 people who gave samples. The chemical can enter the body via absorption through the skin or the lining of the mouth." It has also been found in the breast milk of nursing mothers.
Does triclosan really cause antibiotic-resistant 'superbugs' to grow?
There's growing evidence that it does. One study found that use of triclosan encouraged the growth of bacteria that were resistant to amoxicillin, a common antibiotic. Other research into antibiotic use has found that widespread use of antibiotics and antibacterial agents does indeed help superbugs to develop, which has alarmed many public health experts.
Yikes. What can I do about antibacterial products and antibiotic use?
Plenty. First, stop buying products that contain these compounds. They're often listed on product ingredient labels, but in the case of meat containing antibiotics, you'll have to buy USDA Organic meats
, which are third-party verified to contain no antibiotics. And if you're really motivated, try communicating your concerns to your three representatives in Congress