The US Food and Drug Administration’s recent ban on the chemical triclosan from household antibacterial soaps was a long-overdue victory for public health advocates, worried parents, and vigilant consumers.
Less noticed was the fact that the ban only affects a tiny portion of the products on the market containing the chemical. Triclosan—which in animal studies has been shown to act as a hormone disruptor and raise the risk for all sorts of health and development problems—is still rampant in countless other self-care products in the US, including after-shave, moisturizers, deodorants, body sprays, face masks, dry shampoos, and hand sanitizers, and even a popular toothpaste Americans ingest. It—or one of its chemical cousins—is also often found in “germ-fighting” or “anti-bacterial” versions of just about any type of household product you can imagine: toys, knives, clothing, mouse pads.
That’s because the FDA’s final rule, which targeted 19 antiseptic agents and gave companies one year to remove them from their products, only applies to hand and body soaps. Many products containing antimicrobials in the US aren’t regulated by the FDA. They are considered pesticides and thus fall to the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate. Unless companies are adding the ingredient to products that explicitly promise to protect people from bacteria, they are exempt from listing triclosan on product labels.
Less is known about the potential risks of triclosan as a pesticide used to coat materials, but National Resources Defense Council lawyer Mae Wu says triclosan has been found in paint, caulking, and house dust.
The EU announced last year that triclosan would be phased out of all domestic hygienic goods. Minnesota has introduced a similar ban, which goes into effect next year.
For its part, Colgate-Palmolive has spent years lobbying the FDA to prioritize the benefits of triclosan over the risks, according to the New York Times. The company, which produces the only toothpaste in the US containing triclosan, has argued that the chemical helps fight plaque and gingivitis more effectively than regular toothpaste, even though its efforts have been called into question by more recent research on reproductive health and cancer.
Wu points out that the FDA’s ban doesn’t address two other antimicrobial chemicals that are also potentially hazardous to human health—benzethonium chloride and benzalkonium chloride—which companies routinely use as a substitute for triclosan.
Also, the FDA rule doesn’t apply to restaurants and hospitals, so the soap stocked in bathrooms outside your home could still be laced with banned antimicrobials. We’ve reached out to the FDA for comment and will update this post with its response.
Here’s what we now know about triclosan:
- It’s a endocrine disruptor that interferes with thyroid, testosterone and estrogen regulation and has been linked to issues like “early puberty, poor sperm quality, infertility, obesity and cancer.”
- It has been shown to damage brain development during fetal development in rats.
- It almost certainly disrupts the microbiome in our guts.
- Because of its presence in surface, ground, and drinking water, and in wastewater plants, it’s likely contributing antibiotic resistance, a grave public health concern.
- A CDC study found triclosan present in the urine of nearly 75% of people tested. Other studies have found it in human urine, blood and breast milk.