WASHINGTON, May 20, 2014 — It seems like every week, another chemical that we come in contact with on a regular basis is in the news for its harmful effects.
This week it is triclosan, a germ killing ingredient that is widely used nationwide in hygiene products such as soaps, deodorants and toothpaste.
This past Friday, Gov. Mark Dayton of Minnesota signed a bill making his state the first to ban the use of triclosan.
The ban will not take effect until January 1, 2017 and some supporters of the bill believe that by that time, many manufacturers will have stopped using the chemical anyway.
Triclosan has never been shown to be harmful to humans but has come under increasing scrutiny with the rise in antibiotic resistant bacteria or superbugs.
Superbugs were first created from misuse and overprescribing of antiobiotics. Experts now believe that the abundance of triclosan in our environment, included in the manufacturing of items from kitty litter to pens, are compounding the problem.
Early research, published in Nature by St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital has found that triclosan creates an environment where the resistant and mutated bacteria are more likely to survive.
Although cosmetic groups claim that the chemical kills germs and therefore will prevent infection, critics such as the Food and Drug Association and the Association of Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology believe that the claim of “anti-bacterial” is simply a marketing ploy. They state that it is irrational to believe that the use of these products will lower the risk of diseases such as colds because the majority of those diseases are caused by viruses and not bacteria.
The FDA adamantly stands behind their belief that the best defense against illness is simple soap and water. The only exception being the use of alcohol based sanitizers only when no water source is available. Hand sanitizers such as Purell do not contain triclosan and instead rely on alcohol which kills germs, not just weaken them as these anti-bacterial chemicals seem to.
The federal agency made a proposal last year for companies to prove that their “anti-bacterial” products were more effective that regular soap and water. The agency is still collecting information but the rule states that if a product cannot prove itself as more effective it will either need to be reformulated or remove any anti bacterial claims from marketing.
The FDA has announced plans to revisit the safety of triclosan on humans since it has been shown to disrupt hormones necessary for reproduction and development in lab animals.
There is also increasing concern about these chemicals in the environment. A University of Minnesota study published last year found high levels of triclosan in the sediments of several lakes, and also found that the chemical can break down in those waters into potentially harmful dioxins. After this study was released, the city of Dayton, Minn. ordered all state agencies to stop buying hand soaps and dish and laundry cleaners containing triclosan.
A 2013 study out of Loyola University in Chicago found that triclosan caused dramatic algae die offs and altered the natural bacteria levels in waterways. This alteration makes it difficult for higher species such as frogs and salamanders to survive.
Procter & Gamble’s Crest toothpaste is now marketing itself as triclosan-free. Procter & Gamble plans to finish dropping the chemical from all of its products this year. Johnson & Johnson plans to eliminate it from all its consumer products by 2015.
Although Minnesota is the only state to date to ban the chemicals, it is doubtful that it will be the last.
With the federal government investigating the chemicals and activists creating petitions regularly at sites such as change.org calling for the removal of triclosan from products, anti-bacterial soaps may soon be a thing of the past.
In the meantime, any germaphobe might want to forget about the anti-bacterial products lining your supermarket shelves and instead grab a bottle of Purrell or other alcohol based sanitizer. Although it will not remove dirt, it is effective at killing the majority of germs a person is likely to come in contact with on a daily basis.
As for removing the dirt, plain old soap and water will work just fine.