Triclosan is used for its antibacterial and anti-fungal properties in a variety of common household products, including soaps, mouthwashes, dish detergents, toothpastes, deodorants, and hand sanitizers (in concentrations ranging from 0.1 – 1%) since 1972. It is also incorporated into an increasing number of consumer products, such as kitchen utensils, toys, bedding, socks, and trash bags. In hospitals, it is found in surgical scrubs and personnel hand washes.
According to the FDA, there is no evidence showing that the presence of triclosan may exhibit additional properties, other than the antibacterial and antifungal capacity. Therefore, there is no recommendation for replacing triclosan in personal, healthcare and other products. The reality however is very different.
Existing evidence has identified multiple, potentially toxic properties of triclosan in a variety of organs, adding up to known thyroid disruption problems. A study published in the Journal of Toxicological Sciences in 2013 (see References below) has shown that inhalation of triclosan can be toxic for the lungs, triggers, within a day from the inhalation, acute inflammatory responses in the lung tissue.
Upon exposure, lung cells show reduced survival rates, which is accompanied by changes in the morphology and increased tissue permeability. The specific study showed that it takes two full weeks for the inflammation to resolve.
Another study published in the journal Chemosphere has shown that methyl-triclosan, a common intermediate metabolite of triclosan, can bind human albumin, which is the main protein of the blood plasma. This interaction can have profound impact in endocrine functions of any organism. Under normal circumstances, albumin binds cations (such as Ca2+, Na+ and K+), fatty acids, hormones, bilirubin and thyroxine (T4), acting like a “molecular taxi”.
The well documented impact of triclosan in thyroid functions can be explained through this recently found interaction. In pregnant women, maternal exposure to triclosan, disrupts the mother’s thyroid hormones production, which can result in irreversible neurological and reproductive abnormalities in the baby, because thyroid hormones are considered critical for normal brain development, especially in humans. Female embryos are particularly sensitive to such hormonal disruption.
Men, on the other hand, show sensitivity to different organs. According to a new animal study published in the journal Environmental Toxicology triclosan tends to accumulate in the male reproductive organs and more specifically to the epididymis, the system responsible for transporting sperm from the testicles. This causes pathological damages in the tissue, which result in a significant decrease in daily sperm production and changes in sperm morphology, after only 8 weeks of daily exposure to triclosan.
Apart from these health effects, the long-term use of triclosan in a variety of products has resulted in a significant environmental load. During wastewater treatment, a portion of triclosan is degraded, while the remaining adsorbs to sewage sludge or exits the plant in wastewater effluent.
In the environment, triclosan may be degraded by microorganisms or react with sunlight, forming other compounds, such as chlorophenols and dioxins, both highly toxic. In the US and EU, manufacturers of products containing triclosan must indicate it on the label. Caution is necessary, especially with personal care and household products, since a certain quantity of the containing triclosan will be absorbed and enter the human metabolism.
According to a study published in 2010 in the journal Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, approximately 6% of the containing triclosan is absorbed after skin administration of relevant products. A study published in 2000 assessed the absorption of triclosan after the use of topical mouthrinse products and found a similar absorption of 7% of the triclosan applied. Surprisingly, both studies concluded that triclosan is safe to use in personal care products and no significant adverse effects were observed.
We have in fact plenty of evidence that this chemical shouldn’t be used liberally as if it were a harmless substance.Thanks to more recent studies, it is obvious that there are important side effects of triclosan and perhaps a lot more that we haven’t studied or even thought of.
There is a significant gap in our knowledge about the systemic and long-term effects of triclosan, and thousand other chemicals with which it could be interacting — this gap doesn’t prove that triclosan is safe, but highlights the need to investigate what is really happening before it is introduced in our bodies and food chain.
Wu Y, Beland FA, Fang JL. 2016. Effect of triclosan, triclocarban, 2,2',4,4'-tetrabromodiphenyl ether, and bisphenol A on the iodide uptake, thyroid peroxidase activity, and expression of genes involved in thyroid hormone synthesis. Toxicol In Vitro. 32:310-9.
Lv W, Chen Y, Li D, Chen X, Leszczynski J. 2013. Methyl-triclosan binding to human serum albumin: Multi-spectroscopic study and visualized molecular simulation. Chemosphere.
Lan Z, Hyung Kim T, Shun Bi K, Hui Chen X, Sik Kim H. 2013. Triclosan exhibits a tendency to accumulate in the epididymis and shows sperm toxicity in male sprague-dawley rats. Environ Toxicol. [Epub ahead of print]
Parolini M, Pedriali A, Binelli A. 2013. Application of a biomarker response index for ranking the toxicity of five pharmaceutical and personal care products (PPCPs) to the bivalve Dreissena polymorpha. Arch Environ Contam Toxicol. 64(3):439-47
Kwon JT, Yang YS, Kang MS, Seo GB, Lee DH, Yang MJ, Shim I, Kim HM, Kim P, Choi K, Lee K. 2013. Pulmonary toxicity screening of triclosan in rats after intratracheal instillation. J Toxicol Sci. 38(3):471-5.
Paul KB, Hedge JM, Devito MJ, Crofton KM. 2010. Developmental triclosan exposure decreases maternal and neonatal thyroxine in rats. Environ Toxicol Chem. 29(12):2840-4.
Rodríguez PE, Sanchez MS. 2010. Maternal exposure to triclosan impairs thyroid homeostasis and female pubertal development in Wistar rat offspring. J Toxicol Environ Health A. 73(24):1678-88.
Pearce EN, Braverman LE. 2009. Environmental pollutants and the thyroid. Best Pract Res Clin Endocrinol Metab. 23(6):801-13.
Queckenberg C, Meins J, Wachall B, Doroshyenko O, Tomalik-Scharte D, Bastian B, Abdel-Tawab M, Fuhr U. 2010. Absorption, pharmacokinetics, and safety of triclosan after dermal administration. Antimicrob Agents Chemother. 54(1):570-2.
Lin YJ. 2000. Buccal absorption of triclosan following topical mouthrinse application. Am J Dent. 13(4):215-7.
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Eleni Roumeliotou is a mum, clinical nutritionist, geneticist and founder of Primal Baby, a health sanctuary for all things pregnancy: before, during and after. Eleni passionately helps women, who are trying to conceive or are already expecting a baby, to optimize their diet and lifestyle in order to conceive naturally and have the healthiest baby possible. Her passion is to empower women to take control of their fertility and their baby´s health, safeguarding the wellbeing of the next generation, one baby at a time. You can read all of Eleni´s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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