Triclosan: Modest Benefits & Much Reason for Concern

by | May 1, 2014 | General Health, Oral Hygiene

triclosan_labelFluoride, as we mentioned before, is far from the only you-don’t-really-want-this-in-your-toothpaste ingredient there is. Among those we listed: triclosan.

A powerful antibacterial and antifungal agent, triclosan was first registered as a pesticide by the EPA in 1969. That’s right: a pesticide. Over the years it has found it’s way into a dizzying array of personal care products – from soaps, deodorants, toothpastes and spa products to clothes, paint, furniture, kitchenware and even toys! (You’ll find a good list of specific products here.)

Recent research in Evidence-Based Dentistry shows that this controversial additive may prevent gingivitis (gum disease), plaque buildup and tooth decay. According it its author, “The volume of evidence, and its reasonable quality, has provided clear evidence of the modest benefits of using a triclosan/copolymer toothpaste.”

Still, it has to be asked: Does a “modest” benefit – in this case, 22% reduction in plaque and gingival inflammation and 5% reduction in coronal caries (cavities on the tops of teeth) – justify the risks of muscular and hormonal damage other studies have found to be caused by triclosan?

It doesn’t seem to be an issue for the American Dental Association. And even as the FDA acknowledges that “animal studies have shown that triclosan alters hormone regulation,” the agency still considers it safe to use on and in the human body. After all, they say, “data showing effects in animals don’t always predict effects in humans.”

Of course. That’s been acknowledged by scientists doing the research, as well, such as the authors of one study which showed that even a rather small dose of triclosan can dramatically affect muscle contraction in mice. But they weigh that against the strengths of their findings, discussed in detail in a media release from their university:

[Nipavan Chiamvimonvat, professor of cardiovascular medicine at UC Davis] cautioned that translating results from animal models to humans is a large step and would require further study. However, the fact that the effects were so striking in several animal models under different experimental conditions provides strong evidence that triclosan could have effects on animal and human health at current levels of exposure.

* * *

[Isaac Pessah, professor and chair of the Department of Molecular Biosciences in the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine] questioned arguments that triclosan — introduced more than 40 years ago — is safe partly because it binds to blood proteins, making it not biologically available. Although triclosan may bind to proteins in the blood, that may not necessarily make the chemical inactive, he said, and actually may facilitate its transport to critical organs. In addition, some of the current experiments were carried out in the presence of blood proteins, and disrupted muscle activity still occurred.

Ultimately, said Dr. Pessah, ““These findings provide strong evidence that the chemical is of concern to both human and environmental health.”

Why would such problems arise? Each of the several billion cells that make up your body is surrounded by a protective membrane. What triclosan does is disrupt the synthesis and function of the fatty acids that make up the membrane. It damages the cell. If that happens, hormones have a hard time telling it to do its job – regulating your metabolism, for instance, or your circadian rhythm or immune function.

Environmentally, triclosan has been shown to be especially toxic to aquatic environments. As a 2012 report from Environment Canada put it,

Since triclosan is expected to be continuously present in certain aquatic ecosystems, organisms that live in these environments are likely to be exposed to this substance on a chronic basis. Triclosan has a high inherent toxicity to a variety of aquatic organisms, such as algae, macrophytes, invertebrates, amphibians and fish. Adverse effects on these organisms include reduction in growth, reproduction and survival. Based on the numerous toxicity data available, a predicted no-effect concentration of 115 ng/L was derived. Triclosan may also interfere with the action of thyroid hormones in amphibians at environmentally relevant concentrations.

Suffice it to say, this has ripple effects up the food chain. There are also concerns that environmental exposure to triclosan from product manufacturing may create antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria in the grey water that gets used in agriculture, also affecting our food supply.

In this respect, too, whatever benefits triclosan may confer seem far outweighed by the potential damage it can do.

Avoid products containing triclosan by checking the label. There are plenty of natural alternatives available, including many easy DIY options using common household ingredients.

EWG’s Guide to Triclosan

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