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It’s Easy Being Green: Triclo-what?

Triclosan is found in a multitude of everyday consumer products. But what is it and how safe is it?

A custodial engineer checks a liquid soap dispenser at Washburn High School in Minneapolis, MN. A study by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group revealed that triclosan is in more than 120 hand soaps. (AP/Dawn Villella)
A custodial engineer checks a liquid soap dispenser at Washburn High School in Minneapolis, MN. A study by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group revealed that triclosan is in more than 120 hand soaps. (AP/Dawn Villella)

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The consumer labels trend for products is a great way to help people make smarter purchases, but many consumers may find themselves scratching their heads over the most common ingredients. Triclosan, for example, is used in lipstick, deodorant, facial cleanser, liquid hand soap, and toothpaste, among many other products. In fact, a study by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group revealed that triclosan is in more than 120 hand soaps. But what is it? And why did the Food and Drug Administration recently announce a safety review of it?

Triclosan was first developed as a surgical scrub in 1972. It’s a synthetic, broadly used antimicrobial agent that is most often used to kill bacteria on the skin and other surfaces, and can be used to preserve a product against deterioration due to invasive microbes.

There are more than 700 home-use products that contain triclosan today, but there is no current data to prove any extra health benefits from its use. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, says that antibacterial soaps are not necessary for everyday use and washing hands with ordinary soap and warm water is effective enough to ward off bacteria and infections.

Triclosan—which is found in the urine of 75 percent of the population, according to the CDC—may also not be simply a harmless extra agent. A decade-old Nature article co-authored by Dr. Stuart Levy, director of the Center for Adaptation Genetics and Drug Resistance at the Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, warned that the overuse of triclosan could create antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria just as these strains are emerging worldwide.

Waterways, plants, animals, and humans are all absorbing triclosan, which was found in 36 U.S. streams based on Environmental Protection Agency’s monitoring data. In aquatic environments, triclosan attaches to the surface of suspended solids and sediments and may bioaccumulate or keep on accumulating in living organsims, posing a threat to our aquatic ecosystems. Both a 2006 study on the North American bullfrog and a 2009 study on male juvenile rats concluded that triclosan blocks the thyroid hormone’s metabolism in these animals because it chemically mimics the hormone and binds to the hormone receptor sites so that normal hormones cannot be utilized.

The American Medical Association has recommended triclosan not be used in the home based on the lack of data on it. According to the AMA, “despite their recent proliferation in consumer products, the use of antimicrobial agents such as triclosan in consumer products has not been studied extensively. No data exist to support their efficacy when used in such products or any need for them…it may be prudent to avoid the use of antimicrobial agents in consumer products…”

The FDA announced its review of triclosan after Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-MA), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment, sent letters to the FDA and the EPA earlier this year about the ingredient. Triclosan is regulated as an antimicrobial active ingredient by the EPA while the FDA oversees its use in consumer products along with the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The FDA said it shares Rep. Markey’s concern about the potential effects of triclosan and triclocarban as endocrine disruptors that can adversely affect hormone function.

The FDA has unsuccessfully been trying to establish rules for triclosan’s use for the last 38 years. The EPA, for its part, has concluded that the common low doses of triclosan found in our toothpaste and deodorant, for example, are harmless. They are, however, issuing a new comprehensive review that will be ready in 2013 focusing on endocrine research.

Triclosan itself has not conclusively been found to have any carcinogenic, mutagenic, or teratogenic effects in humans. But while it’s not clear how risky triclosan is, there are alternatives for consumers who don’t want to take any chances while the verdict’s still out. For a comprehensive list of triclosan-free products check out the Safe Cosmetics Data Base.

Read more articles from the "It’s Easy Being Green" series

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