Triclosan – Why you should use it, and why it should be banned

Triclosan: Safe for you, but maybe dangerous for rivers

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.


12 thoughts on “Triclosan – Why you should use it, and why it should be banned”

  1. I am completely with you on that – I love Triclosan, I think it’s great, especially to treat children. But do we really need it in washing up liquid and soap? Not unless I work on a hopsital ward with infectious diseases. So, yes, please ban it from personal care products and keep it available as medicine.

  2. I use braces and for me Colgate Total 12 (which has 0.3% of triclosan) is very good at fighting plaque and controlling tartar.

    1. That’s interesting. I have a feeling I that they would have had to justify its inclusion under FDA regulations. If so they probably have data somewhere on its benefits.

  3. I would have to agree that triclosan can be banned, for one way or another. I have used products with triclosan, I have seen a huge difference in clearing up mild acne, however continued use will form a bacterial resistance,kind of like an antibiotic, meaning that bacteria will become resistant to triclosan, so yes you can use triclosan once your acne or infection has gone, but then you should leave it, because of bacterial mutation. We live in a world full of bacteria, it makes us resistance to harmful bugs that triclosan can’t destroy, bacteria makes us immune so if we destroy all of it, we won’t be immune to it, so triclosan, should be banned, however left for causes that bacteria needs to be destroyed right away, but for everyday use, no I wouldn’t recommend it.

  4. I’ve been using acne cream with triclosan for over 4 years and it’s the only effective cream for my skin condition. It keeps my acne low, to say so, and calms irritations, etc.. I don’t think there’s an alternative to this, at least I haven’t found one in 15 years. Don’t know what to say about bacteria resistance but my acne didn’t become resistant to this cream at all. If I stop using this cream/triclosan, my skin become extremely irritated and the acne grows and I get that sensation that I need to rip my face off. The dermatologist gave me a classic antibiotic treatment but had absolutely no effect. There’s no cure for what I have since the only medication that works for severe acne (I have moderate acne) is very dangerous, causing depression and suicide thoughts, so I have to stick to triclosan.

  5. Robert Goodman

    The yellow scabs of impetigo are from serous exudate produced by the skin. S. aureus gets its name not from that but from the fact that the bacteria themselves are yellow, as can be seen when you grow colonies of them on a plate.

  6. My experience with Triclosan is not at all good. I have used various lotions and creams containing Triclosan claiming to help either to clear up acne or fade out acne marks but have ended up in a vicious cycle of Triclosan causing an over growth of the organism that eventually leads to acne and acne- like eruptions. This of course leaves post acne marks that the Triclosan containing creams/lotion/soap is very effective at clearing, but can’t be used long enough to do the job because of fear of another cycle of breakouts.
    Therefore I simply run away from it and the likes of it.
    However I will not advocate for its ban because it’s still useful in some ways.

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  8. Hi Colin, I found your article really interesting. I have one question. You conclude that Triclosan, a safe and successful antibacterial that has no data to prove it has caused any antimicrobial resistance in the 40 plus years it has been used, should be banned in cosmetics and personal care products. What other broad spectrum antibacterial/ preservative do you suggest should be used as an alternative – one that has no danger of causing antimicrobial resistance in the environment and is just as safe as Triclosan? Look forward to your thoughts! Thanks

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