Triclosan – Why You Should Use It, and Why It Should Be Banned

In a recent post on antibacterial products I deliberately avoided talking about individual antibacterial ingredients.  Most of them are interesting enough to deserve a post in their own right, and none more so than triclosan.  Triclosan was launched in 1972 and has gone on to be one of the most successful antibacterial agents used in personal care.  It has continued to be used more and more, although the rate of growth in its use has probably slowed.

Now I am going to argue at the same time that it is a really useful material whose benefits you should appreciate, and that it should be banned from use in personal care ingredients.  I am a scientist, not a communicator.  I may find getting this over a bit tricky so please try and help me along with this one and hopefully together we can pull it off.

First off, what is it about triclosan that has made it such a big hit with formulators?  Well its first big advantage is that it is safe.  The manufacturers have rooms full of safety data on it.  This is not a metaphor.  They actually have more than one room full of studies devoted to the safety of triclosan.  A completely safe antibacterial is unlikely ever to be developed, but triclosan is not far off as safe as it possible to make them.

On top of being safe, it also seems to have a mild anti-inflammatory effect.  This is a really nice bonus.  It means that if you are formulating a product for infected skin which is quite likely to be inflamed skin as well you get the extra benefit of reducing the reddening.  Its handy for toothpaste as well.  A lot of people have inflamed gums.

There is one particular use where triclosan is really suitable.  Small children often suffer from a particular kind of skin infection called impetigo.  The original cause of this is infection by staphylococcus aureus.  What happens is the skin reacts to the infection by producing a load of inflammatory agents which have the effect of drying the skin out and encouraging the growth of really nasty spots.  The scabs have a slight golden colour to them.  If you haven’t recognised what I am describing yet that might give you the idea.  The second part of the infecting microbes name, aureus, comes from this gold hue.

The combination of the allergic reaction and the ability  of the staphylococcus aureus to reproduce quickly can lead to a cycle of flare ups.  A miserable business for the child and his or her parents.

Dermatologists have found that using antibacterials across a wide section of the infants skin is a good way of breaking the cycle.  A very convenient way to do this is to use a bath.   A product that has been developed for just this purpose is Oilatum Plus Bath Emollient.  This contains triclosan and another antibacterial agent.  I used to work for the company that makes it and they get lots of letters from users saying how effective they found it.  (I never worked on that particular product myself so I can claim no credit, and I am no longer on the pay roll so I have no conflict of interest.)  If you have young children who are suffering with this horrible condition I suggest you give it a try.

So triclosan is safe and effective and very useful for a very unpleasant skin condition.  Why do I want to ban it?   Well I only want to ban it in cosmetics and personal care products.  I think that it should continue to used in medical products.   In fact that is part of the problem.  If the stuff carries on being put in soaps, skin creams and toothpastes  then more and more microbes are going to acquire a resistance to it. Inevitably this will reduce its effectiveness across all the products it is used in including the medical ones.

There is another objection to its use.  One of the many positive features of triclosan from a formulators point of view is its stability.  You stick it in a cream or a bar of soap and when you test it a couple of years later it is still there.  This is great commercially – think long shelf lifes.  It is also good news for toxicologists.  It isn’t breaking down into lots of unpredictable things in use.  But it rings alarm bells for ecologists.  If a molecule is stable then it will hang around a long time in the environment.

Another cause for concern is that it is fat soluble.  There is a potential for it to accumulate in fat tissues.   Although it is not particularly toxic, it does have a level of toxicity.  It could conceivably accumulate in a particular creature and do some harm.  The more we make and the more gets into water courses and out into the wild the more likelihood is that it will pop up somewhere as a problem.  And there have been a couple of recent reports that might indicate we might be getting to that point.

First off, there has been a study published a few months ago that showed that extremely low levels of triclosan could be harmful to water treatment plants.  It might seem odd if like most people you have never thought about water treatment, but bacteria are a key part of the water treatment process.  Antibacterial agents are bad news, particularly ones that are persistent and can accumulate.  And levels detected in humans are creeping up – which of course they will do if we continue to use more of the stuff.

As I said earlier, it is pretty safe.  But the dose makes the poison.  We have to look at the whole picture.  There will be a total use level that is too high for the planet as a whole.  We are probably a long way from that level, but lets not carry on until we reach it.  Keep it for use in medicinal products for babies and small children with impetigo.  Good as it is, we can live without it in personal care products.  Ban it now.

References

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From the UK, Colin Sanders has been a formulator of cosmetic and topical pharmaceuticals for 27 years. Over that time he has formulated nearly every category of product including shampoos, cosmetic skin creams, pharmaceutical skin creams, face masks, lip balms and so on. He has been an active member of the Society of Cosmetic Scientists since 1985 and in 1999 organised the first of the Formulate shows. His degree is in environmental science and he continues to take a keen interest in the impact of human activities on the planet. He regards himself as an environmental activist and all round green. When not in the lab, he writes a blog, Colin’s Beauty Pages with the intention of entertaining and hopefully informing users of cosmetic and personal care products with some insider insights, a bit of science and his own opinions.

  • Philippe Papadimitriou

    E X C E L L E N T article!

    Thank you.

  • http://www.intelligentformulation.org Jim Bullock

    A nicely balanced and well thought-out article – although I am not sure why it is anonymous. Based on my admittedly limited expertise in the subject the human safety concerns are not very significant. However I’d be interested in the author’s opinion on the use of triclosan in toothpaste where its use, I believe, is due to efficacy against gingivitis. This use is FDA regulated and hence medicinal in the USA but not in Europe. Either way it is high volume and hence the resistance / persistence argument comes into play. So, is this used to be considered medicinal (and hence permitted) or cosmetic (and hence banned)?

    • http://www.cactusandivy.com Lisa M. Rodgers

      Hey Jim -

      Many thanks for your comments. You brought to my attention that I had neglected to add Colin’s information at the base of this article. It is updated now.

      Thanks again!

      Lisa

    • Colinsanders

      Hi Jim – I think triclosan is a good choice for an active in toothpaste given how safe it is combined with the anti-inflammatory action. I am not surprised Colgate want to carry on using it. But I think in the public interest it is better to keep these kinds of molecule for more important jobs.

  • gloriaswanson43

    It sounds like it needs to be limited. Would that even work at this point though. If this does make bacteria more resistant then eventually hospitals won’t be able to use it.

    Sensodyne toothpaste active ingredients: Potassium nitrate 5% & Sodium flouride .145% w/v fouride ion
    It’s not listed in the inactive ingredients.

    Good morning everyone…

    • Philippe Papadimitriou

      Despite I do not work in oral care, I have never seen any oral care product containing this preservative.
      Polyols (xylitol, sorbitol, mannitol) are a better choice because high pH help formulators to not need some very effective preservative molecules (hurdle strategy).

      I mostly know of Triclosan mainly in soaps personally.

  • http://www.sterlingminerals.com/ Katherine

    Great article Colin. Very well balanced and an excellent case in point on the overuse of this ingredient. Not wishing to get into the controversial side dealing with environmental issues, however what should be noted as you stated in your article, is this is no different than people overusing antibiotics for every little thing. Get a cold, pop an amoxycillin, get the flu, take a tetracycline.

    We are seeing more and more superbugs coming on with the overuse of antibiotics instead of reserving them for when we really need them. I believe this to also be true with using Triclosan. If it has been shown to work similar to an OTC drug for the practical uses you mentioned, then this is what it should be reserved for and not used endlessly to sanitize our hands, especially since doctors have now confirmed a 20 second washing of hands with standard soap achieves the same.

    • Ashley

      A cold and the flu are caused by viruses. Amoxicillin and tetracycline and are antibiotics used to treat bacterial infections. Just sayin’…. but perhaps that is the problem. People go to their physician for a quick fix and rather than provide a proper diagnosis, he or she simply writes a prescription for something they know is likely unnecessary and increases resistance.

  • Dene62

    You are right, Jim, it is not used as a preservative and, frankly, no-one in their right mind would use it as a preservative if only because its spectrum of activity is far too narrow to be of use. It would always need to be combined with several other “real” preservatives, and there would then almost certainly be some overlap in activity, resulting in the triclosan not being required. Despite its presence on Annex VI (permitted preservatives) of the EU Cosmetics Directive, it is used virtually exclusively as an antibacterial active in the applications you have mentioned, rather than as a preservative.

  • http://www.herbaldiet.com/herbalife/hair-care-essentials/141.aspx Natural Hair Products

    That’s a good information and thanks for sharing it with all of us.

  • http://www.sterlingminerals.com/ Katherine

    I realize this article is more than a month old but recently another round of debate has come to the forefront presented by US American Cleaning Institute calling for the EPA to reject Triclosan ban. Both sides have interesting input, what do you think is the answer?

    The American Cleaning Institute (ACI) has urged the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reject a call to ban triclosan from personal care and hygiene products, claiming the petition lacks merit and relevant evidence.

    EPA published the petition from activist groups late last year in the Federal Register requesting a ban on the antimicrobial pesticide.

    In formal comments to EPA, ACI noted that triclosan is a germ-killing ingredient in personal care and hand hygiene products, which are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, not the EPA.

    For the rest of the story continue through this link: http://www.cosmeticsdesign.com/Formulation-Science/US-Institute-calls-for-EPA-to-reject-triclosan-ban/

  • nona

    I’d like to say I appreciate this article on some levels, but query as to how responsible it is to stress the room full of studies to illustrate its safety, when there is indeed information to the contrary available. Perhaps this information isn’t piled up into a ‘room’ somewhere, but any reasonably intelligent individual can use the internet to locate these studies which show an impact on thyroid hormone concentrations in male juvenile rats, possibilities of it being an endocrine disruptor in bullfrogs, that is is being detected in fish and other marine life, earthworms, human milk and umbilical cord blood, has been linked to cancer, can cause dermatitis, accumulates in fat, liver, lungs and kidneys and can reach toxic levels in our bodies. I’m not so sure I consider that ‘safe’.

    I know when I learned more about triclosan and realized I’d been suckered into thinking I need it in my dish soap and virtually everything else I was buying, I was really angry. Truthfully (just like Grandma always said) good old soap and water and proper hygiene habits will suffice!

    I *am* one that will still agree to use what’s known as a ‘bad’ ingredient when it really is needed in a pharmaceutical; sometimes you try non-pharmaceutical approaches with good results and sometimes you end up needing the pharmaceutical and I leave myself open to that. I like to think I’m fair, balanced, frugal/responsible about my use of antibiotics and other pharmaceutical products, and thus not contributing to the ‘problem’… so it was disheartening to realize how duped I’d been in using triclosan in so many products where it really just has no real need to be other than as a slick marketing tool to convince people like me to buy one brand over another.

    So I can appreciate the parts of this article discussing how some chemicals should be reserved for use in pharmaceuticals. I agree. Chemotherapy drugs are toxic and have awful effects too, but if I am the one with cancer, I want the ability to make a fully informed choice to use a toxic product that will harm me in some ways but may help me in others… if that is my choice. I don’t think we should be subjected to questionable ingredients in *everyday* products though. I don’t think this ‘room’ full of data on its safety is the whole story and I do think it would’ve been more responsible to have presented this issue a bit differently than what was done here, with more acknowledgment of the studies that aren’t waving the banner of triclosan safety.

    I watched DWTS last night though… and so as Len or Bruno might say, this article (dance) gets some points for technique… but there’s still some definite ‘kinks’ to work out. Can’t hold up the ’10′ paddle just yet, but it was a decent effort! ;-)

    • Colinsanders

      It is always good to find someone who really gets into the detail and traces stuff back to the source Nona. And it is especially helpful with issues like triclosan where a lot of work has been done. Nobody can hope to read any more than a fraction of the data on it and there is always a risk that you can get a false impression.

      But please do also bear in mind that assessing toxicity involves finding out what dose is needed to get an effect. Take endocrine disruption for example. If you can measure an effect on an estrogen receptor then a substance can be described as endocrine disruptor. That doesn’t mean it has necessarily actually happen in real life.

      And I have no emotional connection to triclosan one way or the other. If evidence comes to light to suggest it is more dangerous than I think I will change my mind. As you say, it can accumulate in our bodies and it does persist in the environment. We are all in this one together. If you have the references the rat and bulldog studies I’d be interested. I think I recognise the rat one but the bullfrog one might be new to me.

  • Duncan

    Agreed Colin,
    I’ve used Triclosan in Deodorant formulations in the past. Safe and easy to get along with.
    I think the turning point has been its incorporation into plastics used for chopping boards and the like. If they aren’t perfectly clean, bugs can be incubated and resistance can occur. Maybe one can have too much of a bad thing 

    • Colinsanders

      Too true Duncan.  There was even talk of incorporating it into nylon which could be woven into a cloth to make non-smelling underpants.  Much as I would like to be able to skip the monthly chore of washing them, that was a step too far in my opinion.

  • Betsy

    I noticed this is the main ingredient in my clean and clear face wash. Should I keep using it or no? I read the article but not yet sure about using it on the face….? Thanks.

    • http://www.facebook.com/SueSawhillApito Sue Sawhill Apito

      I would suggest you re-read the last paragraph of this article again – I believe it answers your question.  I would never, ever use triclosan UNLESS my life depended upon it.  PERIOD.

  • http://www.facebook.com/SueSawhillApito Sue Sawhill Apito

    I would suggest you re-read the last paragraph of this article again - I believe it answers your question.  I would never, ever use triclosan UNLESS my life depended upon it.  PERIOD.