It’s a chemical that’s been in U.S. households for more than 40 years, from the body wash in your bathroom shower to the knives on your kitchen counter to the bedding in your baby’s basinet.
But federal health regulators are just now deciding whether triclosan – the germ-killing ingredient found in an estimated 75 percent of antibacterial liquid soaps and body washes sold in the U.S. – is ineffective, or worse, harmful.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is planning to deliver a review this year of whether triclosan is safe. The ruling, which will determine whether triclosan continues to be used in household cleaners, could have implications for a $1 billion industry that includes hundreds of antibacterial products from toothpaste to toys.
The agency’s review comes amid growing pressure from lawmakers, consumer advocates and others who are concerned about the safety of triclosan. Recent studies of triclosan in animals have led scientists to worry that it could increase the risk of infertility, early puberty and other hormone-related problems in humans.
“To me it looks like the risks outweigh any benefit associated with these products right now,” said Allison Aiello, professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health.
The concerns over triclosan offer a sobering glimpse at a little-known fact: Many chemicals used in everyday household products have never been formally approved by U.S. health regulators. That’s because many germ-killing chemicals were developed decades ago before there were laws requiring scientific review of cleaning ingredients.
The controversy also highlights how long it can take the federal government to review the safety of such chemicals. It’s not uncommon for the process to drag on for years, since regulators must review volumes of research and take comments from the public on each draft.
The FDA’s website currently states that “the agency does not have evidence that triclosan in antibacterial soaps and body washes provides any benefit over washing with regular soap and water.”
The American Cleaning Institute, a soap and detergent trade organization, says it has provided data to FDA showing that triclosan is both safe and effective.
“Triclosan is one of the most reviewed and researched ingredients used in consumer and health care products,” says Brian Sansoni, a spokesman for the group, whose members include Colgate-Palmolive and Henkel Consumer Goods Inc., maker of Dial soap.
Ironically, triclosan first became widely used because it was considered safer than an older antibacterial ingredient, hexachlorophene. That chemical was banned from household items in 1972 after FDA scientists discovered that toxic levels could be absorbed through the skin. Several infant deaths in France were connected to baby powder that contained unsafe levels of the chemical, due to a manufacturing error.
Triclosan was initially used in hospitals in the 1970s as a scrub for surgeons preparing to perform an operation. It was also used to coat the surfaces of catheters and stitches.
Beginning in the 1990s, triclosan began making its way into hundreds of antibacterial goods, ranging from soap to socks to lunchboxes. The growth has in part been fueled by Americans who believe that antibacterial ingredients provide extra protection against germs.
As the use of triclosan has expanded, more scientists have questioned its effectiveness. In 2007, researchers at the University of Michigan and other universities compiled data from 30 studies looking at the use of antibacterial soaps. The results showed soaps with triclosan were no more effective at preventing illness or reducing bacteria than plain soap.
Other studies have shown that longer hand-washing improves results far more than adding antibacterial ingredients. The Centers for Disease Control recommends washing hands at least 20 seconds. The CDC also recommends using hand sanitizer – most of which use alcohol or ethanol to kill germs, not chemicals like triclosan – if soap and water are not available.