Triclosan: What you should know

Big changes are on the horizon for the States with respect to antibacterial soaps.While most hand soap these days draw us in with labels like anti-bacterial and germ-killing, the Food and Drug Agency (FDA) announced in September that manufacturers in the USA have one year to remove many of their antibacterial agents. While these shifts haven’t quite made it to Canada, it’s very likely that we’ll follow suit… eventually. This post will give you a nice overview of what you should know about these changes and the questionable stance the Canadian government has taken on the matter.

Due in part to our modern phobia of germs, the use of antibiotics in soaps has grown exponentially since the 1970s when they where initially used in a hospital setting. While there are many antibacterial agents that are used currently, triclosan is particularly abundant and, in 2000, was found in 75% of liquid soaps and almost 30% of bar soaps throughout the USA. Today, this ingredient is certainly not limited to soaps and can now be found in about 1600 cosmetic and natural health products throughout Canada. From toothpastes, skin cleansers and moisturizers, to cookware, furniture and toys, triclosan is ubiquitous.

BUT WAIT, DON’T ANTIBACTERIAL SOAPS PROTECT US FROM HARMFUL PATHOGENS?

While this is an idea that most of us have grown up learning, in reality, there is no credible evidence to back this up. The success of triclosan and other antibacterial agents has been largely attributed to our perception that we need antibacterial agents to protect us from harmful bacteria. While this idea has been repeatedly reinforced by manufacturer claims, the FDA and the Public Health Agency of Canada have both stated that soaps with antibacterial agents are no more effective at removing germs than simply using plain soap and water. These statements were both made in response to research dating as far back as 2005.

OKAY, SO ANTIBACTERIAL SOAPS MIGHT NOT BE BETTER, BUT SURELY THERE’S NOT THAT MUCH HARM THAT CAN COME FROM THEM?

Unfortunately, not only do they not work any better than regular soap, they have been largely linked with a number of health and environmental concerns. Aside from destroying natural skin bacteria colonies (not just limited to our gut flora) that help keep us healthy, there’s a laundry list of linked health concerns including risks for cancer, endocrine disruption, and the big one, antibiotic resistance. While I won't delve into the importance of being concerned about antibiotic resistance, I encourage you to further research the topic if you're not aware of the catastrophe that antibiotic resistance has become.


With respect to environmental concerns, triclosan and many other antibacterial agents, released into our wastewater, are on the rise in our aquatic ecosystems. This is largely due to our modern treatment plants, which cannot fully filter out many of these agents. Triclosan is known to bioaccumulate and biomagnify in the environment. For example, triclosan can be found in fish at concentrations thousands of times higher than their environment. This chemical and other antibacterial agents can alter entire ecosystems as they become more widespread. As a result, triclosan and many other antibacterial agents are recognized as an environmental threat by Environment Canada.

In light of the insufficient evidence for effectiveness and mounting evidence for health and environmental risks, the FDA opted to ban triclosan and many other antibacterial agents on September 2nd 2016. Manufacturers have one year to remove these ingredients, although, at their request, many are transitioning to antibacterial alternatives such as  benzalkonium Chloride, Benzethonium Chloride and Chloroxylenol, which the FDA has deferred from including in the new rule. Note, the FDA’s action is part of a settlement made with the environmental group Natural Resources Defence Council, which sued the FDA in 2010 for not finalizing a 1978 rule that would have banned triclosan from consumer soaps.

Alarmingly, here in Canada, despite the fact that Environment Canada recognizes these ingredients as environmental threats and the recent action by the FDA,Health Canada maintains that triclosan is safe for humans. According to the department “Triclosan does not pose a health risk to most Canadians, including children, pregnant women, and seniors” because the levels we are exposed to are “too low to be harmful.” Health Canada also says there is “no evidence” triclosan can lead to antibiotic resistance.

So here’s the problem, since triclosan is used in so many different products in small amounts, and this ingredient does not readily degrade, our exposure adds up! While the government is still in the deciding process of banning triclosan, I’m quite disappointed with the stance they have taken. All in all, as a result of this response, hundreds of products that we continue to use daily may contain triclosan, which is definitely bad for the planet and most likely not that great for us either.

Note: Health Canada considers triclosan to be safe when used in cosmetics at a concentration of up to 0.03% in mouthwashes and 0.3% in other cosmetic products like soaps. These cosmetic limits are consistent with those of the European Union, which allows triclosan in cosmetic products at 0.3% as a preservative.

That wraps up what you should know about the new changes on antibacterial soap regulations. One final note, as a consumer, it’s so important to flip your products over and read the ingredient lists. Look for ingredients like Triclosan, and perhaps refer back to the David Suzuki Foundation Dirty Dozen, which is an excellent compilation of ingredients to watch out for based on current research. Don’t trust all the front of the package marketing! Just because something says that the product is “natural”, “organic” or whatever else does NOT equate to a clean and safe product. Finally, below is a list of the newly banned chemicals, including Triclosan. If you have any questions, queries, conundrums or concerns, leave them below in the comments, on The Eco Well's facebook page or shoot us an email!

Note: Triclosans ban is currently limited to soaps predominantly. This ingredient will still be allowable in a wide range of different products, including items like toothpaste. Food for thought.

  • Cloflucarban

  • Fluorosalan

  • Hexachlorophene

  • Hexylresorcinol

  • Iodine complex (ammonium ether sulfate and polyoxyethylene sorbitan monolaurate)

  • Iodine complex (phosphate ester of alkylaryloxy polyethylene glycol)

  • Nonylphenoxypoly (ethyleneoxy) ethanoliodine

  • Poloxamer-iodine complex

  • Povidone-iodine 5 to 10 percent

  • Undecoylium chloride iodine complex

  • Methylbenzethonium chloride

  • Phenol (greater than 1.5 percent)

  • Phenol (less than 1.5 percent) 16

  • Secondary amyltricresols

  • Sodium oxychlorosene

  • Tribromsalan

  • Triclocarban

  • Triclosan

  • Triple dye

 

References

  • Calafat, A.  (2008) Urinary Concentrations of Triclosan in the U.S. Population: 2003-2004. Environ Health Perspect 3:303-307.

  • Canosa, P. et al.  (2005) Aquatic degradation of triclosan and formation of toxic chlorophenols in presence of low concentrations of free chlorine. Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry 383(7-8): 119-1126.

  • Gee, RH et al.  (2008) Oestrogenic and androgenic activity of triclosan in breast cancer cells. Appl Toxicol. 28(1) :78-91.

  • Larson, E. et al. (2004) Antibacterial products do not reduce the risk for primarily viral infections in households of healthy persons Ann. Intern. Med. 140:321-329.

  • Luby, S. et. al. (2005) Antibacterial soap no more effective than plain soaps. The Lancet 366:225-233.

 

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