Colgate-Palmolive’s newest product, a toothpaste called Colgate Total SF, rolled out this week with a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign that includes a celebrity-studded commercial that will air during Sunday’s Super Bowl.
Colgate Total SF is a reformulated version of the company’s best-selling toothpaste, the antibacterial Colgate Total. The ad campaign stresses the supposed benefits of the new product (better flavor, fewer cavities) and doesn’t mention what’s been quietly removed from the old formula: triclosan, an antibacterial compound that for decades was Colgate Total’s active ingredient. (The active ingredient in the new version is stannous fluoride).
Triclosan kills bacteria, but it’s also been found to cause gut inflammation and endocrine disruption in animal studies. In 2016, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a rule banning the chemical along with 18 other antimicrobial ingredients from soaps, arguing that the presence of those compounds made the washes no more effective than regular soap and potentially harmful in the long run. But when it came to toothpaste, the agency said the potential benefits of triclosan outweighed the risks—a decision that baffled some scientists and consumers.
Colgate Total has been the only toothpaste approved for sale in the US that contains triclosan. It’s also Colgate’s top-selling product. For years Colgate fought back against suggestions that the compound was unsafe, claiming in a special section on its website that “more than 90 clinical studies” supported its efficacy and safety. (It did not specifically cite any of the studies.)
In a Jan. 25 corporate earnings call, Colgate-Palmolive CEO Ian Cook brushed off an analyst’s query about why he hadn’t mentioned triclosan’s removal in an earlier description of the new formulation of the toothpaste, insisting that the compound’s sudden disappearance from Colgate Total was mere coincidence.
“Triclosan, we are indifferent,” Cook said. “We have a better product today than we had with the old product. And that was a great product and we stood behind that product all the time from a scientific point of view. This just happens to be a better product and that’s where we are moving to.”
The company’s most recent annual report suggests otherwise. In a section on significant potential risks, the company noted that regulatory agencies in the US, Canada and Europe are reviewing the use of triclosan in consumer products, and that some US states and cities were considering their own bans on the compound.
“A decision by a regulatory or governmental authority that triclosan, or any other of our ingredients, should not be used in certain consumer products or should otherwise be newly regulated, could adversely impact our business, as could negative reactions by our consumers, trade customers or non-governmental organizations to our use of such ingredients,” the report said.
Colgate-Palmolive did not respond to requests for comment. FDA spokesperson Sandy Walsh says only that the agency “will continue to evaluate” triclosan, and is monitoring the scientific literature on its safety.
Decades ago, when he was a science adviser at the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, David J. C. Constable advised the company to drop triclosan from its consumer health products. Constable left GSK in 2009, and is now the science director at the American Chemical Society’s Green Chemistry Institute. Triclosan is biodegradable, he says, but not in the quantities that have been released to the environment as a result of overzealous consumers demanding more antibacterial products. “Bans become necessary because of the excessive and in many cases, unnecessary, uses of some compounds added in response to consumer fear,” he says.