FDA’s Rule on Triclosan Is Working, but How Well?

Perhaps you’ve heard about triclosan. It’s a common ingredient in antibacterial products—used in everything from hand soaps to children’s toys. It’s also been under fire because of studies suggesting health risks associated with its long-term daily use as well as questions about its benefits. At the end of 2013, the FDA issued a proposed new rule on triclosan.

While manufacturers have yet to submit their responses to the ruling (they have until June) on triclosan, we are cautiously optimistic to hear that many have been quietly reformulating their products without it. According to Nichelle Harriott, Staff Scientist at Beyond Pesticides, “The market has actually shifted away from triclosan for a few years now.” Companies like Johnson & Johnson, Proctor & Gamble and most recently, Avon, are phasing out triclosan altogether.

But that doesn’t mean it’s gone entirely. “There are some products impregnated with triclosan including plastics and rubbers with an antibacterial compound. These include mats, carpets—even sandals and underwear. These products are typically under the purview of the EPA, not the FDA.” And the EPA has yet to make a formal ruling on triclosan. In order to identify products with triclosan, Harriott says you’ll want to look out for labels that read “antimicrobial protection,” “limit the growth of bacteria,” or “antibacterial preservative.” Sometimes it takes a little digging to find out if triclosan is in a product. “You may have to look at the MSDS on the product or contact the manufacturer.”

For purchasers at schools, Harriott warns against any specials on soaps and cleaning agents. Manufacturers will be looking to unload their triclosan-laden antibacterial products before the ruling is finalized. When it comes to antibacterial soap, avoid it, no matter the price tag.

Unfortunately, just because soap manufacturers are moving away from triclosan doesn’t mean new products are safe. “The market is shifting but not necessarily toward something safer,” says Harriott. “It may not include triclosan but it might mean there’s something in there you want to stay away from.” One such antibacterial ingredient is nanosilver, which has yet to be studied and was only conditionally approved by the EPA. Other chemicals replacing triclosan include quaternary ammonia compounds or quats, including benzalkonium chloride, which have been linked with asthma and respiratory illness. Your best bet is to follow HSC’s recommendations in The Quick + Easy Guide to Green Cleaning and stay away from any soap that claims to be antibacterial. It’s just not necessary. Check out our recommendations on hand washing in schools [.pdf] for more tips.

Beyond Pesticides has been actively involved in advocating for the ban of triclosan since 2004. As a scientist focused on human health and environmental research, Harriott is surprised that it took the FDA this long to respond to the evidence. We see her point. HSC has recommended against the use of triclosan-based hand soaps since we published our very first Quick +Easy Guide to Green Cleaning. Triclosan was introduced to the market in 1972. Since then, it has been linked withthe growth of breast cancer cells , proven to interfere with pregnancy and shown to affect thyroid hormone. It’s taken 42 years to finally hold manufacturers accountable for these health risks. If anything is to be learned from this ruling it might be that approved chemicals available on the market are not necessarily safe to use.