Safety Of Triclosan, Antibacterial Soap Ingredient, Being Evaluated By FDA

Megan Charles

Disturbingly, many chemicals used in everyday household products have never been formally approved by US health regulators because many of the substances were developed several decades ago, before there were laws requiring scientific evaluation for safety and effectiveness.

Introduced into the market in 1972, triclosan – a prevalent antibacterial, antimicrobial, and antifungal agent used now in 75 percent of hand soaps and body washes sold in the US – is under scrutiny (again) as the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is finalizing its safety review of the additive.

According to a report in the Huffington Post, in 1978, the FDA published initial tentative guidelines for chemicals used in liquid hand soaps, washes, and other household products, classifying triclosan as "not generally recognized as safe and effective," because regulators could not find enough scientific research demonstrating its safety and effectiveness.

However the same report did not rule out the use of triclosan.

Several guideline drafts were subsequently published, but results were never finalized. In the meantime, triclosan was approve for use in Colgate toothpaste in 1997, after Colgate-Palmolive Co. submitted data showing that the antimicrobial ingredient helped combat gingivitis.

In contrast, Johnson & Johnson announced last year they planned to phase out triclosan from all of their products by 2015, along with other organic compounds like formaldehyde and the solvent 1,4-dioxane, citing consumer concerns as their primary motivation.

But until the safety of triclosan is definitively assessed, companies do not have to remove the compound from their products. US regulators announced last summer they anticipated finalizing their official results in the winter 2012, but didn't.

The present FDA status of triclosan indicates it is not currently known to be hazardous to humans – however animal studies have shown triclosan alters hormone regulation. Concerns have also been raised over its contribution to bacteria resistance.

With pressure from critics the FDA aims to finish its review later this year. The FDA's ruling will determine whether triclosan will continue to be used in household cleaners. Therefore, the decision could have costly implications on a $1 billion industry that includes hundreds of antibacterial products – kitchenware, furniture, toys, clothing, along with cleaning and hygiene items.

Safety and effectiveness should be a concern to consumers when purchasing everyday items. Skin can absorb as much as 60 percent of whatever is applied to it topically, and the impact of the introduction of antibacterial agents into the water supply through fervid use in hand washing has not been adequately analyzed.

Notably, based on monitoring data from the EPA on the environmental and ecological risk, triclosan has been found in approximately 36 tested US streams at a level of concern (LOCs) beyond acceptable for aquatic plants.

Contrary to what some germaphobes would have you believe, hand washing does not require an antibacterial agent, nor do hand sanitizers kill germs more effectively. Antibacterial soaps provide little to no actual benefit above standard detergents.

The action of agitation with regular soap is the key to proper hand washing. Most people just fail to adequately take the time to suitably wash their hands.

The CDC suggests if people wish to be hygienic they should writhe their hands, thoroughly lathering with regular soap, for the length of time it takes to sing "Happy Birthday" twice – exceeding more than 30 seconds. Alcohol gel is useful but only on relatively clean hands. It does not prevent transfer of bacterial spores like Clostridium difficile which can cause diarrhea.

For anyone interested in the stats of people who actually wash their hands, a KRC research group conducted a survey in 2012 of 1,000 adults across the country and found that 71 percent admitted to washing their hands regularly; 58 percent witnessed someone else leave a public facility without washing; 35 percent witnessed a co-worker fail to swing by the sink; and 20 percent observed a restaurant worker leave a restroom sans a wash.

[Image via Shutterstock]