The modern consumer is highly conscious of controversial ingredients. Most of us are taking the initiative to eliminate unnecessary chemicals, dyes, and preservatives from our lives. We’re switching to reusable, biodegradable, and compostable alternatives to our everyday purchases. We want to use products with simple ingredients where the purpose of each ingredient is clearly understood.
Triclosan is a controversial ingredient. Numerous studies have been conducted on triclosan’s safety and effectiveness in a variety of different products. There are very few toothpastes that contain triclosan. Are they safe? Do they work? What do they do? You might be surprised at the lack of answers there are to be found.
Bacteria In Your Mouth
Your mouth is full of bacteria, whether or not your dental hygiene habits are top notch. It’s simply the nature of the mouth. The body has a natural balance of good and bad bacteria. Good bacteria are necessary for the healthy function of our body, and they’re also responsible for keeping bad bacteria in check. Good bacteria can’t do all the work on their own. The rest of the process of diminishing bad bacteria comes from hygiene habits.
Brushing your teeth twice a day for two minutes at a time, flossing daily, and using an antibacterial mouthwash will help to maintain a healthy balance of bacteria in your mouth. The bacteria that cause bad breath, gum disease, plaque, and tartar are kept at bay.
Some toothpaste manufacturers have come to the conclusion that triclosan should play a role in the management of oral bacteria. Triclosan is an antibacterial ingredient that is not commonly used in oral antibacterial products, hand soap, or hand sanitizer. The controversy surrounding triclosan is a result of multiple findings in different areas of study.
What is Triclosan?
Triclosan is an ingredient used to reduce bacteria or inhibit its growth. Many products, including those that aren’t intended for personal care, are treated with triclosan. The Food and Drug Administration does not regulate or evaluate triclosan used in many household products, as these products are not intended to be ingested and do not come into meaningful contact with the skin.
Triclosan is most commonly used as a surgical scrub. Since the 1970’s, doctors have been using triclosan to sanitize their hands and their patients at the incision site. Triclosan is sometimes used to treat surgical sutures to reduce the risk of infection during the healing process.
The FDA does regulate triclosan in body care and oral care products. In addition to toothpaste, triclosan can also be found in body soaps, hand soaps, skincare products, and makeup. The antibacterial, antifungal, and antimicrobial properties of triclosan make it easier for manufacturers to deliver sterile products or to claim that their products safely sterilize the things they come into contact with.
How Triclosan is Regulated
In late 2017, the FDA changed its standards of approval for triclosan. All oral care products that contained triclosan became subject to pre-market approval. Each individual product needed to be evaluated to see if it met the FDA’s standards and lived up to the claims the manufacturer made.
FDA testing is rigorous and expensive. Many brands try to avoid it as often as possible. As a result of this announcement, many oral care product manufacturers opted to remove triclosan from their ingredients rather than become subject to a rigorous, lengthy, and complex testing process.
Colgate was one of the only oral care brands to double down, submitting their triclosan enhanced toothpaste to testing. The FDA did find sufficient evidence that triclosan had antigingivitis properties, and Colgate was allowed to continue to market their toothpaste without changing the formula. It’s worth noting that the threshold for evidence was minimal - the FDA was primarily interested in whether or not the ingredient was harmful.
The FDA is suspicious of claims surrounding triclosan. Rigorous testing has found that a pre-surgery bath for patients using a 2% triclosan solution found that live staph bacteria on the skin was significantly reduced.
There is anecdotal evidence from several studies that suggests that hand soap or body wash with triclosan may slightly boost antibacterial soap’s efficiency at ridding the skin of bacteria, but the FDA was not convinced. There are no studies that show definitive evidence that triclosan on its own serves a greater benefit than regular soap and water handwashing.
Reviews of Colgate’s studies presented to the FDA do not stand up to adequate scrutiny. Attempts to duplicate these studies show that the results produced were too minimal to be clinically significant. Researchers found very minimal evidence that triclosan works to prevent cavities, and no evidence that triclosan works to prevent or reverse gum disease.
Is Triclosan Safe?
Triclosan is effective at killing off bacteria, but that statement can be misleading. We’re predisposed to think of bacteria as something exclusively harmful. Triclosan can and does kill some bad bacteria, like MRSA, but it also kills a lot of good bacteria. Without beneficial bacteria, humans, plants, and animals cannot survive.
Triclosan’s antifungal and antimicrobial properties make it a popular addition to fertilizers and insecticides used in food production. One researcher used triclosan infused insecticide when growing onions and tomatoes from the ground up. When the vegetables were ready to be harvested and consumed, the resulting crop was tested. The researcher found that triclosan existed inside of the crop that was intended to be eaten.
The evidence suggest that once triclosan finds its way into the soil, it finds its way into everything that comes into contact with that soil. Fish that live in areas where groundwater runs into lakes or oceans will sometimes contain high levels of triclosan.
Triclosan, The Antibiotic Effect, and Our Immune Systems<
The way triclosan travels and the things it kills in its path have become cause for alarm. Triclosan is now considered a “contaminant of emerging concern” and has been added to the FDA’s list of ingredients with questionable safety and benefits.
Overexposure to triclosan can have a negative impact on the human body. Bacterial helps to fortify our defenses against disease and allergy. Small bits of exposure to bacteria give our body a frame of reference to defend itself. If all the bacteria we would use to fortify our defenses is gone, our bodies cannot adequately prepare to fight infection and keep us healthy.
We sometimes need outside intervention to kill bacteria that causes illness, and we usually get that intervention in the form of antibiotics. Antibiotics are highly effective when used correctly. If antibiotics are prescribed when they aren’t completely necessary or are prescribed too often, the way they work changes. Bacteria adapt to avoid antibiotics, and they come back with a vengeance.
The same thing can happen with triclosan. If triclosan can continue to kill most of the bacteria it comes into contact with, bacteria can mutate for its continued survival. Strong and overused antibacterial agents like triclosan can actually make people sicker. When we’re left with bad bacteria that won’t respond to any course of defense, we have no way to protect ourselves or cure ourselves when we come into contact with these bacteria.
Getting Rid of Triclosan
Triclosan likes to accumulate. Triclosan is much harder to kill off than the bacteria it’s designed to combat. If you’ve been brushing your teeth with a triclosan toothpaste, the bristles of your toothbrush are full of triclosan. Every time you brush, you’re fortifying your toothbrush with even more triclosan.
Triclosan can potentially build up to very high levels in your toothbrush, and there’s no real way to effectively remove it. When you use that toothbrush, you’re killing all the bacteria in your mouth. You’re also ingesting trace amounts of triclosan that can kill all the bacteria in your body - including the ones you need to keep yourself healthy.
All you can do is throw away your toothbrush and use a new one exclusively with non-triclosan toothpastes. A triclosan-free antibacterial mouthwash can safely and effectively replace triclosan in your oral care routine.
As for the triclosan that’s already in your body, there’s not much to do about that. Your body will slowly metabolize it over time, and your bacterial balance will return to optimal levels on its own.
It’s time to change the way we perceive bacteria. All human life came from bacteria - both the good stuff and the bad stuff. Bacteria is a crucial part of our everyday lives and our maintained health. When we use ingredients like triclosan, we’re potentially harming our bodies and the environment.
Natural and less potent antibacterial products will eliminate enough bacteria to keep us healthy without damaging the proper balance of bacteria we need for survival. Your body is designed to kill some of the bad bacteria on its own. There’s no need to use industrial antibacterial agents in our everyday lives. There’s such a thing as being too clean - don’t be so clean that you’re hurting yourself.