Over the years, certain chemicals believed to be harmless have been found to wreak havoc on our health (think: asbestos, nicotine, lead, and, more recently, bisphenol-A). Today, there’s a new public enemy in town: a common ingredient in household items like toothpaste called triclosan. It’s a common antimicrobial agent, and is also found in soaps, hand sanitizers, dishwashing detergents, and shampoos.
One triclosan-containing toothpaste, Colgate Total, has come under fire especially. According to Bloomberg News, a review of the research suggesting that triclosan was safe when Colgate earned FDA approval for the product in 1997 shows it may not be so harmless after all. (Colgate Total is the only triclosan-containing toothpaste available in the U.S.)
“Triclosan in toothpaste is especially concerning because of the direct route of exposure through your mouth,” says Laura Geer, Ph.D., assistant professor in the department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at SUNY Downstate School of Public Health in Brooklyn.
Triclosan and triclocarban, a similar compound, are endocrine disruptors, meaning they can mimic certain hormones and impact your health. The specific effects are still to be determined, but previous research suggests it may disrupt your thyroid function. Animal studies suggest it may also be linked to cancer-cell growth and affect fetal development. It may also enhance testosterone action, which could impact your fertility.
Recently, research presented at the National Meeting of the American Chemical Society even found that among 181 pregnant women, triclosan was found in all of their urine samples and in about half of umbilical cord blood samples. This means these chemicals transfer to a developing fetus.
The good news: Although these ingredients are used in more than 2,000 every day products, it’s possible to rid your home of the ingredient. “We don’t want to start a mass hysteria, but it seems that the risks outweigh any of the benefits,” Geer says. According to the FDA, antibacterial soaps and body washes containing triclosan don’t provide any benefit over washing with regular soap and water. “The simplest way to reduce your exposure is to avoid purchasing any products that are specifically labeled ‘antibacterial’ or ‘antimicrobial,’” Geer says. “If you see that used as marketing on a product, there’s a very good chance triclosan or triclocarban is the active ingredient.”