The Yahoo! News site has an article from the Associated Press [AP] about the US Food and Drug Administration’s [FDA] ongoing review of triclosan, an anti-bacterial and anti-fungal agent that is used in a wide variety of consumer products, including anti-bacterial soaps, toothpaste, deodorant, mouthwash, other cosmetic products, and household cleaning supplies. The FDA’s original goal was to release the results of this review in April, 2011; clearly they are a bit behind schedule. (According to the article, the results should be released later this year — or, at least, real soon now.) Triclosan does have one use explicitly approved by the FDA: it is used in some toothpastes to help prevent gingivitis. Its other uses have not, as far as I know, been subject to any formal approval process.
I’ve written here a couple of times before about the use of triclosan. It is suspected, based on animal studies, of being an endocrine disruptor, boosting the effect of testosterone and estrogen, and reducing that of thyroid hormones. Another animal study, reported last summer, suggests that triclosan can interfere with muscle function. What is most striking, though, is that, for its main use, as an anti-bacterial agent in consumer products, there is essentially no evidence that it has any value at all. As the FDA website, and other publications, have said for some time:
For other consumer products, FDA has not received evidence that the triclosan provides an extra benefit to health. At this time, the agency does not have evidence that triclosan in antibacterial soaps and body washes provides any benefit over washing with regular soap and water.
This is not to diminish, in any way, the importance on washing in general, and washing ones hands in particular. (The Centers for Disease Control have resources on hand hygiene.) But, as the FDA’s note suggests, the evidence suggests that ordinary soap and water work just fine. As I wrote in an earlier post:
My own conclusion is that, since I have seen no evidence that these anti-bacterial products provide any benefit, and since there may be some risk, they are not worth using, especially since they cost more than plain old soap.
Apart from the possible negative effects of any particular chemical, there is a general argument for not using anti-microbial products indiscriminately. There is a possibility that excessive usage may contribute to antibiotic resistance, and there is also a risk of disrupting the normal population of microbes that are part of our personal biosystems, which can lead to serious health problems. It hardly seems worth much risk to use something, like triclosan, that in most cases doesn’t seem to work anyway.