Triclosan Banned In Soap Still In Colgate Toothpaste: Company 'Owns' FDA, Activists Allege

JohnThomas Didymus

After the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the antibacterial chemical triclosan from antibacterial soaps, activists began questioning the decision by the agency to allow the substance to remain in the best-selling toothpaste brand Colgate Total.

Public health activists have suggested that FDA's decision to allow triclosan in toothpaste while banning it in soap is baffling and that it is yet another example of the undue influence of large corporations on public health policy.

Experts began pressuring FDA to ban triclosan in soaps and impose tight regulation on similar antibacterial chemicals following studies that suggested that antibacterial soaps were not more effective than non-antibacterial soaps. According to experts, widespread use of triclosan could be causing more harm than good by promoting emergence of strains of bacteria resistant to common antibacterial agents.

"Consumers may think antibacterial washes are more effective at preventing the spread of germs, but we have no scientific evidence that they are any better than plain soap and water," FDA said in a recent statement announcing its decision to ban triclosan in soaps. "In fact, some data suggests that antibacterial ingredients may do more harm than good over the long-term."

Concerns about the public health impact of triclosan and related chemicals, such as triclocarban, were heightened by studies that suggested it has a disruptive impact on animal metabolism and development of the reproductive system of young animals through interference with normal hormonal function.

But if the FDA banned triclosan from soap because it is a potentially harmful ingredient, how does the agency justify allowing it to remain in toothpaste?

The explanation FDA provides is flagrantly counter-intuitive, public health activists say.

According to The New York Times, FDA had required Colgate-Palmolive, which manufactures Colgate Total -- the only toothpaste in the U.S. that contains triclosan -- to conduct toxicology studies on the chemical. And based on the results of the studies, the agency concluded it was safe and effective in toothpastes and approved it in 1997.

The toxicology studies conducted by Colgate-Palmolive, according to FDA spokesperson Andrea Fischer, indicated that the benefit of triclosan in toothpaste outweighs the risks. According to Fischer, the studies showed that toothpastes that contained triclosan were more effective for "reducing plaque and gingivitis."

"Based on scientific evidence, the balance of benefit and risk is favorable for these products."

The New York Times spoke with an expert, Rolf Halden, director of environmental security at the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University.

According to Halden, the decision to leave triclosan in toothpaste while banning it in soap seems odd because more of the chemical gets rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream through the mouth than through the skin. Thus, if the chemical is harmful, as many experts believe, it will likely do more harm in toothpaste than in soap.

But Colgate-Palmolive spokesperson Thomas DiPiazza insisted that triclosan is safe in toothpastes. He said that toxicology studies that established the safety of triclosan in toothpaste were implemented rigorously. He said the Colgate-Palmolive study reviewed more than 100 toxicology studies covering multiple aspects, such as "carcinogenicity, reproductive and developmental toxicity, eye and skin irritation, and short term and long term toxicity."

"The full weight of scientific evidence amassed over 25 years continues to support the safety and efficacy of Colgate Total."

He also said that the company conducts continuous monitoring for regular safety updates.

A review of 30 studies by The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews also supported the conclusion that toothpastes with triclosan and fluoride were more effective for reducing plaque, gum inflammation, bleeding and cavities than toothpastes containing only fluoride.

However, Halden insisted that the Cochrane review was not adequate to establish the safety of triclosan because it looked only at data covering six months to three years. It also did not consider the more serious health concerns raised by experts, such as fears that triclosan may have a disruptive impact on cognitive development and metabolism.

Studies also suggest it may impair development of the reproductive system of young animals by disrupting normal regulation of thyroid hormones, testosterone, and estrogen, leading to early puberty, infertility, and even cancer.

"[The review] wasn't 'designed to look at hormonal effects, nor did they carry on long enough to measure the outcomes we are concerned about."

But DiPiazza claimed that FDA actually never proved that triclosan was unsafe or ineffective. The decision to ban triclosan in hand soaps was based solely on the failure of soap manufacturers to prove that soaps containing triclosan were more effective than non-antibacterial soaps, according to DiPiazza.

Triclosan was used originally by surgeons to sterilize their hands, but manufacturers began adding it to common household products, such as soaps, detergents, fabrics, and even toys in the 1990s.

Colgate-Palmolive added triclosan to toothpaste in 1997.

Concerns raised by experts, such as Halden, about the potential disruption of endocrine function by triclosan have caused public health activists to call for its banning in toothpastes also.

Dentists have suggested that consumers who are concerned about triclosan could switch to toothpastes containing other active ingredients, such as stannous fluoride, an antimicrobial that has been shown to prevent cavities and promote oral health.

According to activists, FDA's decision to retain triclosan in toothpaste after banning it in soap makes no sense. The decision only reflects Colgate-Palmolive's interest to maintain the best-seller status of its toothpaste brand Colgate Total.

According to activists, the FDA decision could be evidence that Colgate-Palmolive company "owns" the agency.

[Image via Natalia Kupreychenko/Shutterstock]