Triclosan: Not Safe, Not Effective

The time has come to wash our hands of triclosan and other unnecessary antimicrobial chemicals for good.   

Triclosan and other antimicrobials, added to many soaps and other everyday products – and found in the bodies of more than three-fourths of Americans – likely harm people's health and the environment, while providing no benefit to consumers, said more than 200 scientists and medical professionals in a consensus statement published today.

The statement in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectives, coauthored by EWG, recommends an end to the indiscriminate and widespread use of triclosan, triclocarban and other antimicrobial chemicals in cosmetics and consumer products.

Triclosan in people

Triclosan, a powerful pesticide registered with the Environmental Protection Agency, may cause changes in the human hormone system, harming reproduction and development. Recent studies also show that higher triclosan levels in people are linked to increased sensitivity to allergens.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has detected triclosan in the bodies of more than 75 percent of Americans tested. In a study of teenage girls, EWG found triclosan in urine samples collected from all 20 subjects. This widespread exposure is likely due to the chemical’s ubiquitous use in cosmetics and consumer products.

EWG and the scientists who signed the statement believe antimicrobials should only be used if adequate testing shows that they are safe and they have been proven effective for particular uses. Scientists are concerned that widespread use of antimicrobials in consumer products could contribute to growing antibiotic resistance and make the vital medical uses of antimicrobials ineffective.

Where is triclosan found?

A 2008 EWG investigation found that the EPA had approved 20 triclosan mixtures from 11 manufacturers for use in products as diverse as undergarments and building materials. Encouragingly, our review last month of current EPA files found that many triclosan registrations have either been voluntarily cancelled, cancelled for certain applications or have pending cancellation requests from the manufacturers themselves. Although the market has shifted, EWG identified numerous manufacturers and EPA-approved uses that allow triclosan to remain in a staggering assortment of products.

EWG’s Skin Deep® Cosmetics Database shows that triclosan can be found in:

  • Soaps
  • Shampoos
  • Conditioners
  • Lotions
  • Toothpastes
  • Deodorants
  • Shaving products

In September, as a result of many years of efforts by EWG and other public health and consumer interest organizations, a Food and Drug Administration ban will go into effect, prohibiting the use of triclosan, triclocarbon and 16 other antimicrobial chemicals in soap products. This action comes four decades after the FDA said it did not have data to show triclosan was safe or effective, and raised concern about human health and the amount absorbed through the skin. However, the agency will allow continued use of the chemicals in other personal care items.

Triclosan in personal care products is just one part of the story. While the antimicrobials market changes all the time, triclosan is still approved for use in building materials, housewares, cleaning supplies, textiles and apparel, and outdoor and sports gear. It is also permitted in phones, toothbrushes and razors, and in children’s items, such as bibs, toys and playground equipment.

Check out our interactive guide for a comprehensive look at where triclosan could be hiding in your life.

Triclosan in the environment

Use and disposal of products containing triclosan result in significant discharges of this toxic chemical into wastewater treatment plants and the environment. Triclosan is found in streams and waterways all across the country. In 2007, EWG partnered with researchers from East Bay Municipal Utility District, the wastewater utility serving the San Francisco Bay Area, and found more than 40 percent of the wastewater samples collected from residential, commercial and industrial sites contained triclosan.

Triclosan persists in the environment, is toxic to aquatic organisms and can transform into cancer-causing chemicals such as dioxins, chloroform and 4-chloroaniline. And just as in residential and medical settings, triclosan's buildup in the environment could lead to the development of bacterial resistance.

From the wastewater plants, triclosan is transferred to farm fields where the wastewater residues are applied as fertilizer, which can result in triclosan contamination of produce grown on those fields. Experts warn that triclosan-contaminated food and water could present additional routes of exposure for people.

To see where triclosan may be found in your home, see EWG’s tipsheet.


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