Many people with compromised immune systems use antibacterial soaps and gels, particularly when they’re on the go, to reduce health risks. But environmentalists have launched a campaign to ban triclosan, the active ingredient in these soaps. That action would do nothing for public health while thwarting access to helpful products.
These anti-chemical groups have so demonized triclosan by spreading misinformation that some manufacturers have agreed to phase it out of their products. And the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has called on manufacturers to provide more data on the substance in response to a lawsuit brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The lawsuit addresses bureaucratic delays related to FDA review of the substance.
As a result of the hype, the “conventional wisdom” suggests that triclosan doesn’t work, is dangerous and significantly contributes to antibiotic resistance problems. But a closer look debunks these claims.
First, you might have read that anti-bacterial soaps and gels are useless because they don’t kill viruses. But they are not designed to kill viruses; they are designed to kill dangerous bacteria like E. coli, which can be transmitted by a simple handshake. Full hand washing — or alcohol-based hand cleaners — better target viruses.
If triclosan reduces the risk even by a small amount, it’s well worth it for those suffering with such illnesses as emphysema and other chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases. After all, even minor illnesses can prove life threatening or cause serious complications for them and others with compromised immune systems.
And there is plenty of evidence that antibiotic soaps and gels are helpful. “Anti-microbial agents in soap were best at reducing bacteria,” the authors of one of the “largest and most comprehensive studies” explain in a press statement. Published in the American Journal of Infection Control in March 2005, the study found that antibiotic soaps reduced bacteria on hands by 90 percent.
So what about safety? The most “damning evidence” offered about triclosan are allegations based on studies that suggest links between the chemical and health effects in rodents dosed large amounts, which have little relevance to trace exposures among humans.
Similar rodent studies also find that many naturally occurring chemicals found in food cause health problems when given to rats and mice in high doses, including some found in foods such as broccoli, coffee and pickles. We do not need an FDA review of these foods to know they are safe to eat and that these rodent studies are not particularly relevant to human health risks from trace chemicals.
Although it’s calling for more data for political reasons, the FDA has not suggested that consumers should be alarmed about the chemical. It explains on its website: “Triclosan is not currently known to be hazardous to humans.” The agency also notes that although they are not 100 percent sure every single use is beneficial, “for some consumer products, there is clear evidence that triclosan provides a benefit.”
Finally, the data are not clear about how much, if any, effect triclosan has on resistance to antibiotic drugs. And phasing it out will not solve drug resistance problems, which are more clearly related to other products and public policies.
Where resistance is a problem, the answer lies in the continued creation of new medical antibiotics, constantly presenting new challenges to dangerous bacteria. Unfortunately, efforts to limit access to antibiotics reduce potential profits, and thereby incentives for new investment.
The campaign against triclosan is part of a broader effort to force society to abandon useful technologies. While triclosan may not be useful in all applications, it certainly has value and low risks. But if the activists have their way, consumers — particularly those already battling dangerous illnesses — will suffer.