FDA Reviewing Antibacterial Chemical Widely Used in Soaps and Body Washes

Kathleen Doheny

April 12, 2010

April 12, 2010 — With the FDA reviewing the antibacterial chemical triclosan, widely found in everyday products such as hand soaps, body washes, toothpastes, cosmetics, toys, clothing, and furniture, should you or shouldn't you ditch products with this ingredient?

Here are the most frequently asked questions about triclosan, with answers from experts on both sides of the debate, to help you decide.

Q: What is triclosan?

Triclosan is a chemical added to many products for its antibacterial action.

Q: How long has it been in use?

''It's been in use for over 40 years," says Brian Sansoni, a spokesman for the Soap and Detergent Association, whose members produce soaps and body washes. Initially, its use was only in health care settings such as hospitals, he says.

In the last 15 years, triclosan began showing up in consumer hygiene products, he says.

Q: What prompted the recent FDA investigation of triclosan?

The FDA announcement this week about triclosan was in response to a letter from Rep. Edward J. Markey, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment.

Markey had sent the letter in January, requesting information about the status of the FDA's ongoing review of triclosan in consumer products.

Markey is concerned and is calling for the FDA to ban the use of triclosan in personal care products. He wants the Environmental Protection Agency to take steps, too, such as evaluating the potential of triclosan -- washed down the drain with personal care product use -- to contaminate drinking water and contribute to antibiotic resistance.

Q: Where does the FDA stand, for now, on triclosan?

Triclosan ''is not known to be hazardous to humans," according to the FDA statement issued this week.

In 1997, the FDA reviewed data on triclosan in one specific toothpaste, Colgate Total, and found that the triclosan in it was effective in preventing gingivitis, the inflamed gum condition that marks the beginning of periodontal disease.

(Markey has asked the FDA to re-evaluate this approval, as the review was done before health concerns arose about triclosan.)

As for triclosan added to soaps and body washes, the FDA say there is no evidence that these products provide any extra health benefits over plain soap and water.

The FDA say it is continuing to review the safety of triclosan in the products it regulates. It is partnering with the EPA to study the effects on environmental health.

Q: Why do critics want triclosan banned from consumer products?

"We want it removed because it is ineffective and poses a potential threat to human health and the environment," Sarah Janssen, MD, PhD, a staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, tells WebMD.

In animal studies, triclosan has been found to interfere with hormones crucial for normal brain development and function and reproductive system development and function, Janssen says.

That interference could be serious, she says, leading to altered behavior, learning disabilities, and infertility.

The development of antibiotic resistance with continuous use of the products with triclosan is another concern, she says.

''The other big concern is, because of its widespread use in consumer products, we now have widespread contamination of the U.S. population with this chemical," Janssen says. ''Three-quarters of Americans are carrying traces of it in the blood."

She is referring to a study, published in 2007, in which researchers from the CDC found that three-quarters of more than 2,500 urine samples from U.S. children and adults had various concentrations of triclosan.

Q: What is the industry view of triclosan as an ingredient?

''We have seen absolutely no clear evidence that use of triclosan or any other antibacterial ingredient is leading to hormone problems in human beings," Sansoni says. "It's a great leap," he says, to go from animal study results to human study results.

Products with triclosan, he says, ''are widely available and are continually used safely and effectively by millions of people in hospitals, offices, homes, and day care settings."

''We think it's important for consumers to continue to have access," Sansoni says.

Q: Should you avoid products with triclosan?

For now, according to the FDA, there is not enough evidence to recommend avoiding the products. The FDA expects to release the findings of its review of the ingredient's safety in spring of 2011.

Q: If you want to avoid products with triclosan, how can you best do it?

Simply by reading the label. Triclosan will be listed in the ''drug facts'' label.

Sansoni says products with the ingredient are also likely to include other information elsewhere on the label, pointing out the antibacterial action.


News release, FDA.

News release, Environmental Protection Agency.

Sarah Janssen, staff scientist, Natural Resources Defense Council, San Francisco.

Brian Sansoni, spokesman, Soap and Detergent Association, Washington, D.C.

News release, Rep. Edward Markey.

Calafat, A. Environmental Health Perspectives, published online Dec. 7, 2007.