Antibacterial soap with the active ingredient triclosan doesn’t kill common bacteria any better than plain old soap and water, according to a study released in September.
The finding may be a nail in the coffin for triclosan, at least when used in hand soaps. But after a long, controversial history, triclosan still won’t be altogether cleared from American homes.
The antibacterial agent is also used in hand-sanitizing gels, tartar prevention toothpastes, and is sometimes used as a coating on mattresses, clothing, toys, and plastic sheeting used in agriculture. (Some hand sanitizers use alcohol, not triclosan as their active ingredient.)
Triclosan was first introduced in the United States in 1969 by a company that is now part of Novartis. For a long time, it was mainly used in hospitals. When its use crept out of industry and into homes, critics quickly began to raise health concerns about the chemical.
The health concerns, which mainly relate to long-term exposure, are wide-ranging. Some studies suggest that triclosan causes cancer. As it breaks down, it emits dioxins, which are some of the most toxic chemicals on earth.
As science began to focus on endocrine disruptors in the 1990s, it became clear that triclosan was among these chemicals that simulate the body’s own hormones. It affects estrogen, androgen, and thyroid hormonal systems.
When triclosan makes its way into natural bodies of water, its estrogen-like properties affect fish. The EPA has agreed to investigate whether it may be adding to the challenges faced by any endangered species.
As concern has grown about the overuse of antibacterials contributing to the rise of antibacterial-resistant microbes, or “superbugs,” triclosan again appeared on the list of problem chemicals.
A 2012 study found that triclosan exposure can weaken heart and other muscular contractions.
Terry Collins, Ph.D., a professor of green chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University, says the chemicals may have some specialized uses, but they clearly shouldn’t be in consumer products.
“I’m not in favor of banning these things,” Collins said of triclosan and a less common cousin triclocarban, “but the mass usage of them is almost certainly unwise.”
So why do we still have legal mass usage?
Critics point to triclosan, along with phthalates and bisphenol-A (BPA), as proof that chemical regulation in the United States is a hot mess.
The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) is the main law that covers chemicals. Passed in 1976, it grandfathered in most chemicals that were already on the market.
The Environmental Protection Agency enforces the TSCA. To pull a chemical, the EPA must prove that it poses an “unreasonable risk” to public health or the environment.
Of the 60,000-plus chemicals already on the market when the TSCA became law, just a few hundred have been tested for safety. Only five have been partially regulated, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates cosmetics, which include anything “intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled, or sprayed on, introduced into, or otherwise applied to the human body ... for cleansing [or] beautifying.”
That leaves the EPA regulating triclosan in housewares and the FDA regulating it in soaps, gels, and toothpaste.
But the FDA hardly has more bite than the EPA. Under the law, cosmetic products and ingredients other than color additives do not need FDA approval before they hit the shelves. The FDA can ban products or ingredients, but it has to present dependable evidence that they are harmful.
Consumers, largely unaware of the debate surrounding the chemicals, spent almost $1 billion on products containing triclosan or triclocarban in 2010. A by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found triclosan in the urine of three out of four Americans.
The personal products industry has begun to shy away from triclosan in recent years, experts said.
The FDA proposed a regulation that would remove triclosan and triclocarban from topical antimicrobial products in 1978, but the agency only took action in 2013 after the NRDC filed a lawsuit.
But the new regulations the FDA is currently proposing, which will become final in 2016, won’t ban triclosan. Instead, they will remove the presumption that triclosan is an effective antibacterial agent. Products labeled “antibacterial” will have to show the FDA evidence that they work better than soap and water.
The new regulations won’t touch products that aren’t used with water, like those hand-sanitizing gels. Nor will they affect toothpastes containing triclosan, which most experts agree improve oral health.
Meanwhile, the European Union banned the chemical for use in products that come in contact with food in 2010. This year, it began to phase triclosan out of all personal products.