FDA Finally Admits Concerns over Antibacterial Products

The agency published a statement on Thursday admitting it had some concerns over the widespread use of the antibacterial chemical triclosan.

April 8, 2010

Plain soap, with no antibacterial chemicals added, works just as well.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—It's a registered pesticide that the U.S. government has approved for use in everything from underpants to toothpaste. But Thursday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finally admitted it had some reservations about the widespread use of triclosan, an antimicrobial chemical used in tons of "antibacterial" products, from hand soaps and shaving creams to kitchen countertops and car steering wheels.

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THE DETAILS: On the FDA's website, the agency stated that while triclosan hasn't been found to cause instant hazard to people, "several scientific studies have come out since the last time FDA reviewed this ingredient that merit further review." Citing animal research, FDA concedes that the chemical could be a possible endocrine disrupter, which means it interferes with the body's production of hormones, such as those that regulate the thyroid and reproductive systems (in some cases, hormone disruption can lead to a bigger problem like cancer, insulin resistance, or obesity). The FDA also notes that, in most cases, there is insufficient evidence that triclosan provides any health benefits that soap and water can't provide; they do, however, note that in studies on triclosan in antibacterial toothpastes, the ingredient has been found to cut down on cases of gingivitis. Going forward, the FDA will be working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has some authority over uses of triclosan because it is a registered pesticide, to study the effects of the chemical on human, animal, and environmental health.

WHAT IT MEANS: The FDA is finally catching up with other public health and medical advocacy groups, who've been calling for tighter regulation on triclosan for years. As far back as 2000, the American Medical Association issued a statement saying that triclosan and related antimicrobial chemicals should be removed from consumer products. In a report, the agency said, "No data exist to support their efficacy when used in [consumer] products or any need for them, but increasing data now suggest growing acquired resistance to these commonly used antimicrobial agents. Studies also suggest that acquired resistance to these antimicrobials in bacteria may also predispose these organisms to resistance against therapeutic antibiotics."

In addition to hormone disruption and possibly contributing to antibiotic resistance, triclosan is guilty of triggering allergic skin reactions, and a 2001 study in the journal Emerging and Infectious Diseases suggested that it could be contributing to a rise in overall cases of allergies and asthma. By continually using antimicrobial products and keeping ourselves in such sterile environments, the authors suggested, our immune systems aren't challenged and don't build up the natural defenses we need to ward off allergens. The EPA has also noted that triclosan can be contaminated with the cancer-causing chemical dioxin, which gets released as triclosan breaks down in either consumer products or in the environment. Dioxin can also form when triclosan-treated clothes, such as athletic wear, are exposed to sunlight.

The good news is that simply by eliminating triclosan-containing products from your home, the levels of the chemical in your body will drop in a short period.

It will likely be a while before either the FDA or the EPA bans or even just limits the amount of triclosan in consumer products. Until then, protect yourself with a few simple steps:

• Read labels. Because the FDA considers any personal-care product that contains triclosan an over-the-counter drug, the ingredient must be listed in the ingredients panel. Avoid buying any product that lists triclosan or its close cousin triclocarban as an "active ingredient."

• Keep it out of your home. Antimicrobial sheets, towels, cutting boards, and food containers are just some of the household products that contain triclosan. Avoid buying anything treated with "Microban" or "Biofresh." In general, it's best to avoid any product advertised as "antimicrobial." If the product isn't treated with triclosan, it's likely infused with silver nanoparticles, which have just as iffy health and environmental effects.