On September 2, 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it will ban triclosan and 18 other antibacterial chemicals in soaps and liquid hand or body wash products because they are ineffective and potentially harmful.
The banned chemicals are also found in hand sanitizers, detergents, deodorants, antiperspirants, lotions, creams, toothpastes, dishwashing liquids, shampoos, mouthwashes, shaving cream, after-shave lotions, hair conditioners, foot odor products, cleaning supplies, pesticides, kitchen utensils, toys, bedding, socks, trash bags and even baby pacifiers, but the FDA ban does not affect these products.
The labels “antibacterial,” “antiseptic” or “antimicrobial” on products suggest that they probably contain at least one of the 19 banned ingredients. In addition to triclosan, the list includes: cloflucarban, fluorosalan, hexachlorophene, hexylresorcinol, iodine complex with ammonium ether sulfate and polyoxyethylene sorbitan monolaurate, iodine complex with 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, triclocarbon and triple dye.
Triclosan Persists in the Body and the Environment
North Americans use so much triclosan that the CDC has found traces of it in more than 75 percent of urine samples of people over age five. It has been found in large amounts in San Francisco Bay, in lakes in Minnesota and in the Mississippi River. It has been found in breast milk, and in the blood, urine and body tissues of teenage girls. Researchers in 2010 showed that triclosan in wastewater plants can be converted to dioxins that are like PCBs and pesticides, persisting in the environment for years with the potential to cause deformities and disease in animals and humans.
Why These Antibacterial Chemicals May be Harmful
- Resistant Bacteria: Triclosan increases risk of bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics (Microb Drug Resist, 2006 Summer;12(2):83-90; The American Journal of Infection Control, April 2016). More than two million people become sick from antibiotic-resistant infections every year, and they cause at least 23,000 deaths. Soap and water remove bacteria from your skin. Triclosan does not remove bacteria; instead, it acts like an antibiotic. It kills bacteria by blocking certain pathways to change the DNA of the bacteria. It kills some bacteria and encourages other bacteria to grow abundantly, and thus may cause mutations in bacteria that make them resistant to antibiotics. Several studies show that triclosan grows bacteria resistant to antibiotics.
- Endocrine Disrupters: Triclosan is an endocrine disrupter that has been shown to reduce thyroid (Toxicol. Sci, (2009) 107 (1): 56-64), testosterone and estrogen levels in rats. Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that block the effects of hormones. Hormones direct many chemical reactions in your body; for example, growth hormone makes muscles grow and thyroid hormone regulates the rate that you convert food to energy. Endocrine disrupters can cause birth defects, other developmental disorders and cancers. DDT, PCBs and dioxins are examples of endocrine disrupters that are known to block hormones to cause deformed domestic animals, wildlife and perhaps humans.
- Potential Cancer Risk: Animal studies, but no human studies, show that triclosan blocks hormones in the body that could increase cancer risk. It increases progression of breast cancer cells in animals and in culture media (Chem. Res. Toxicol, March 31, 2014;27(5):834–842). Large doses caused liver and prostate cancers in mice and reduced fertility in mice and rats.
- Potential Muscle Damage and Weakness: After just 20 minutes of exposure to triclosan, mice suffered a 25 percent reduction in heart muscle function and 18 percent reduction in grip strength (Proc Natl Acad Sci, Aug 28, 2012;109(35):14158-63). Fish that were exposed to triclosan in the water were not able to swim as well as those who were not exposed (Environ Sci Technol, Feb 19, 2013;47(4):2008-17).
Triclosan Should be Removed from All Products that Touch the Body
For more than 40 years, this endocrine disrupter has been used in more than 2,000 different products. I think triclosan should be banned from all products for human use, not just soaps. In toothpaste, triclosan can kill bacteria, but no clinically important effects in preventing tooth decay or gum disease have been shown (Evidence-Based Dentistry, March 1, 2014;15(1):6–7). People tend to swallow at least some of the toothpaste or mouthwash they use, so these products are potentially even more harmful than the soaps and other products that may be absorbed through the skin.
There is no evidence that triclosan or any of the other antibacterial chemicals in soaps and body washes are any more beneficial than washing with regular soap and water. Triclosan breaks open the cell walls of bacteria, but it takes several hours to do this, so it is ineffective in bar soaps and liquid hand washes. Hand sanitizers containing triclosan have not yet been banned, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends using alcohol-based hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol if ordinary soap and water are not available.
The FDA ban will not be enforced for another year, and even then products containing these chemicals will remain on the shelves for a long time. Many companies have already begun to replace triclosan with other chemicals that have never been approved by the FDA, such as benzalkonium chloride, benzethonium chloride and chloroxylenol (PCMX). There is no data to show that these chemicals are safe for humans either.
I recommend that you take action now. Read the list of ingredients on every product that touches or enters your body. They should have as few added chemicals as possible. Soaps should contain only soap. It makes no sense to buy a baby pacifier that contains triclosan. If your water supply contains fluoride, you do not need fluoride in your toothpaste or mouthwash, and you certainly do not need all of the other chemicals. If you do not have fluoride in your water, ask your dentist for advice on whether to use a prescription fluoride toothpaste.
Gabe Mirkin, M.D., is a sports medicine doctor and fitness guru. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin has run more than 40 marathons and is now a serious tandem bike rider with his wife, Diana. His website is http://drmirkin.com/. Click to read Gabe’s full bio.