In a recent post on antibacterial products I deliberately avoided talking about individual antibacterial ingredients. Most of them are interesting enough to deserve a post in their own right, and none more so than triclosan. Triclosan was launched in 1972 and has gone on to be one of the most successful antibacterial agents used in personal care. It is particularly popular in acne products and toothpaste. It has continued to be used more and more, although the rate of growth in its use has probably slowed.
Now I am going to argue at the same time that it is a really useful material whose benefits you should appreciate, and that it should be banned from use in personal care ingredients. I am a scientist, not a communicator. I may find getting this over a bit tricky so please try and help me along with this one and hopefully together we can pull it off.
First off, what is it about triclosan that has made it such a big hit with formulators? Well its first big advantage is that it is safe. The manufacturers have rooms full of safety data on it. This is not a metaphor. They actually have more than one room full of studies devoted to the safety of triclosan. A completely safe antibacterial is unlikely ever to be developed, but triclosan is not far off as safe as it possible to make them.
On top of being safe, it also seems to have a mild anti-inflammatory effect. This is a really nice bonus. It means that if you are formulating a product for infected skin which is quite likely to be inflamed skin as well you get the extra benefit of reducing the reddening. Its handy for toothpaste as well. A lot of people have inflamed gums.
There is one particular use where triclosan is really suitable. Small children often suffer from a particular kind of skin infection called impetigo. The original cause of this is infection by staphylococcus aureus. What happens is the skin reacts to the infection by producing a load of inflammatory agents which have the effect of drying the skin out and encouraging the growth of really nasty spots. The scabs have a slight golden colour to them. If you haven’t recognised what I am describing yet that might give you the idea. The second part of the infecting microbes name, aureus, comes from this gold hue.
The combination of the allergic reaction and the ability of the staphylococcus aureus to reproduce quickly can lead to a cycle of flare ups. A miserable business for the child and his or her parents.
Dermatologists have found that using antibacterials across a wide section of the infants skin is a good way of breaking the cycle. A very convenient way to do this is to use a bath. A product that has been developed for just this purpose is Oilatum Plus Bath Emollient. This contains triclosan and another antibacterial agent. I used to work for the company that makes it and they get lots of letters from users saying how effective they found it. (I never worked on that particular product myself so I can claim no credit, and I am no longer on the pay roll so I have no conflict of interest.) If you have young children who are suffering with this horrible condition I suggest you give it a try.
So triclosan is safe and effective and very useful for a very unpleasant skin condition. Why do I want to ban it? Well I only want to ban it in cosmetics and personal care products. I think that it should continue to used in medical products. In fact that is part of the problem. If the stuff carries on being put in soaps, skin creams and toothpastes then more and more microbes are going to acquire a resistance to it. Inevitably this will reduce its effectiveness across all the products it is used in – including the medical ones.
There is another objection. One of the many positive features of triclosan from a formulators point of view is its stability. You stick it in a cream or a bar of soap and when you test it a couple of years later it is still there. This is great commercially – think long shelf lifes. It is also good news for toxicologists. It isn’t breaking down into lots of unpredictable things in use. But it rings alarm bells for ecologists. If a molecule is stable then it will hang around a long time in the environment.
Another cause for concern is that it is fat soluble. There is a potential for it to accumulate in fat tissues. Although it is not particularly toxic, it does have a level of toxicity. It could conceivably accumulate in a particular creature and do some harm. The more we make and the more gets into water courses and out into the wild the more likelihood is that it will pop up somewhere as a problem. And there have been a couple of recent reports that might indicate we might be getting to that point.
First off, there has been a study published a few months ago that showed that extremely low levels of triclosan could be harmful to water treatment plants. It might seem odd if like most people you have never thought about water treatment, but bacteria are a key part of the water treatment process. Antibacterial agents are bad news, particularly ones that are persistent and can accumulate. And levels detected in humans are creeping up – which of course they will do if we continue to use more of the stuff.
As I said earlier, it is pretty safe. But the dose makes the poison. We have to look at the whole picture. There will be a total use level that is too high for the planet as a whole. We are probably a long way from that level, but lets not carry on until we reach it. Keep it for use in medicinal products for babies and small children with impetigo. Good as it is, we can live without it in personal care products. Ban it now.