Earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a press release about triclosan – an ubiquitous antibiotic found in tons of personal care products, including deodorant, toothpaste, hand and facial cleansers, mouthwash, and other household cleaners. I have long tried to avoid purchasing products like this that were spiked with antibiotics – just on a gut instinct that it can’t be good for our environment to be flushing lots of antibiotics down the drain. In the press release, the FDA stated that:
For some consumer products, there is clear evidence that triclosan provides a benefit. For other consumer products, FDA has not received evidence that the triclosan provides an extra benefit to health. At this time, the agency does not have evidence that triclosan in antibacterial soaps and body washes provides any benefit over washing with regular soap and water.
After reading the press release, I was curious what kinds of research have been done on the safety of triclosan, as well as the utility of antibiotics in common household products. I like going to the primary literature sources so I can see for myself what scientists have been researching, and if their research is published in reputable peer-reviewed journals, so I first investigated the safety aspects of triclosan. It wasn’t hard to find a number of papers that implicated triclosan as problematic in animal studies. One paper (The bactericidal agent triclosan modulates thyroid hormone-associated gene expression and disrupts postembryonic anuran development) found that when bullfrog tadpoles were exposed the levels of triclosan that are typically found in our environment, the tadpoles did not develop normally. Another paper (Short-term in vivo exposure to the water contaminant triclosan: Evidence for disruption of thyroxine) studying rats found that very low levels of triclosan disrupted thyroid hormone regulation. This has long been a concern about triclosan, as the structure of triclosan is very similar to that of thyroid hormones.
Now I know we can’t take animal studies and immediately jump to the conclusion that our bodies will react to triclosan the same way as bullfrogs and rats, but it is concerning to us in the greater scheme of things. If triclosan is flushed down our drains and into the environment, there is lots of evidence that it is not rapidly degraded. One paper showed that triclosan has a half life (the amount of time it takes the amount of a compound to decrease by 50%) of 4-8 days in freshwater and saltwater (Photolytic degradation of triclosan in freshwater and seawater) but that it was degraded to a dioxin compound. Dioxins have been shown to be very harmful – but that’s a topic for another paper. Another paper found that triclosan has a half life of 18 days in soil ( Biological degradation of triclocarban and triclosan in a soil under aerobic and anaerobic conditions and comparison with environmental fate modelling). It appears that wastewater treatment plants are unable to remove triclosan completely. One study (Pharmaceuticals, Hormones, and Other Organic Wastewater Contaminants in U.S. Streams,1999-2000: A National Reconnaissance) found triclosan in 49 of 85 samples collected downstream from cities and livestock operations. So, if we all stopped using triclosan today, it would be naturally degraded in the environment after a couple of months. However, since we are constantly flushing it down our drains, the natural degradation process can’t keep up with the constant influx.
But, if there is a serious positive influence on our daily lives through the use of triclosan containing products, to some it may be worth the environmental cost. However, this arguement quickly falls apart when looking for evidence to support the claim that triclosan makes our lives better. In a comprehensive review of the scientific literature published in 2007 (Consumer antibacterial soaps: effective or just risky?). I’ll quote from their abstract since it says it all:
Soaps containing triclosan within the range of concentrations commonly used in the community setting (0.1%-0.45% wt/vol) were no more effective than plain soap at preventing infectious illness symptoms and reducing bacterial levels on the hands.
So, if you want to avoid contaminating the environment without sacrificing personal hygiene, please check the labels of any household products before you purchase them to see if they contain triclosan (which also is marketed as Microban, Irgasan DP-300, Lexol 300, Ster-Zac, Cloxifenolum, or Biofresh ref). Not only is this product unnecessary in most circumstances, but it looks like it could have a very negative impact in our environment. In my opinion, since it’s not really helping you, you might as well find an alternative product that doesn’t contain triclosan.