One of the Chemists’ Corner team made a very good point on Twitter. If antibacterial soaps, most of which contain triclosan, are effective then industry shouldn’t have any trouble demonstrating the fact. The context to this is a recent request from the FDA for data supporting the efficacy of antibacterial soaps.
As it happens triclosan is a tricky customer when it comes to lab work. It is quite a mild antibacterial, which means that it is very easy for germs to develop a resistance to it. It is also oil soluble and can very easily be inactivated by detergents. It is very easy to generate lab data where one, or even both, these factors produce misleading data.
The best way to check out the efficacy is in tests where you are looking at the actual presence of organisms on the skin. When you do it that way you can easily achieve a reduction of around 99% in the level of organisms using triclosan. The nature of the formulation is important so you need to know what you are doing.
But I don’t think that it would be too difficult to come up with a protocol that would satisfy the FDA that triclosan is indeed an antibacterial.
Having said all that I am not a fan of the use of triclosan in cosmetics. The fact that it is so easy for resistance to develop to it means that even if it is effective today the time will come when it will cease to work if you use it continually. You will simply develop your own triclosan resistant population of germs.
My advice is to hang on to your bar of antibacterial soap and only get it out when you really need it. We are lucky enough to live in a world that is already pretty clean and germ free by historical standards. Most of the time germs don’t pose a threat. But the odd occasion arises when you might want to be particularly careful. If you have just cleaned out a drain for example, you might want a bit more than straight soap. But most of the time you can get by very well without it.
There is however one use for triclosan that I would miss if it ended up disappearing from personal care products. It is always gives me a good laugh to see the perennially badly informed Stacy Malkin of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics calling for triclosan to be banned both because it is ineffective and because it is dangerous. Stacy is (obviously) not a scientist, but surely anyone can see how illogical that is!