Triclosan: An Unneeded Pesticide in Consumer Products

“Don't forget that the flavors of wine and cheese depend upon the types of infecting microorganisms.” - Martin H. Fischer

Bacteria, or the dreaded germs, are literally everywhere and are both friend and foe. The number of bacteria living on our skin and inhabiting our mouths and guts is greater than the total number of cells in our bodies. Every environmental surface has a bacterial colony of some form, waiting to be picked up or reproduce. It is best to think of the world as covered in a thin layer of bacteria. What to do? As we tell our granddaughter, ­ “Wash hands, wash, wash, wash!”. Whenever we come in the house we take off our shoes and wash our hands, and we wash again before eating. Does washing get rid of all those germs? Of course not, but it does reduce the population of bacteria and removes the obvious dust and dirt. One of the principles of toxicology is dose/response; in general the smaller the dose, the smaller the response. So, washing reduces the number of bacteria, or the dose, and decreases the likelihood of a response.

Of course a fear of germs, manufactured or perceived, is an opportunity for some to make money. In the last decade there has been a proliferation of consumer products with antimicrobial additives. One of the most common is triclosan, first registered as a pesticide in 1969. It is generally considered an antibacterial agent, in that it kills bacteria on the skin and other surfaces. This is different from an antibiotic, which kills bacteria to treat a disease. Triclosan is used widely in many consumer products such as antibacterial soaps, deodorants, toothpastes, cosmetics, fabrics, and plastics. Its chemical name is 5-­Chloro-­2-­(2,4-­dichlorophenoxy)phenol but it is called other names by the various manufactures, such as Microban®, Irgasan®, Biofresh®, Lexol-­300, Ster-­Zac, and Cloxifenolum. Just for more confusion, some antibacterial soaps use triclocarban in place of triclosan.

Triclosan exposure may occur through ingestion of toothpaste or mouthwash containing triclosan, through dermal contact with consumer products containing triclosan, or through consumption of contaminated food and drinking water. Triclosan is a fat-­soluble chemical that easily crosses cell membranes. Once inside the cell, triclosan poisons a specific enzyme that many bacteria and fungi need for survival. While most governments do not consider triclosan harmful, there is growing concern about potential endocrine effects, which the EPA is reviewing. Of great concern is the development of resistant bacteria due to the widespread use of triclosan. There is also evidence that it can persistent in wastewater after we wash and flush it down the drain, which may have effects on wildlife.

Protecting children from bacterial exposures does not require pesticides like triclosan in our soap, but rather, consistent and proper use of regular soap. Studies have found that regular soap is as effective as triclosan-containing soap in removing bacteria from our hands. And as an antibacterial agent, triclosan is not effective on viruses, like the cold or flu virus. To ensure my granddaughter has an environment in which she can reach and maintain her full potential, I say wash, wash, wash.