Monday, 11 November, 2002
Triclosan, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Medicines, is "an antiseptic that is active against a wide range of bacteria and fungi. As a soap or liquid it is used as a preoperative hand wash for surgeons and for cleansing and disinfecting the skin of patients before surgery, injections, or taking blood samples. It is also included in various skin preparations to prevent infection of minor wounds and for treating such conditions as eczema and acne." It's a broad-spectrum antibiotic that's used in (among other things) dish soap, hand soap, toothpaste, and as an additive to plastics to aid in bacterial resistance. Chances are, if you've purchased any kind of "anti-bacterial" soap, its one active ingredient is triclosan. But is it effective? And is it safe?
There's no doubt that triclosan is effective in killing bacteria and fungi. But as an additive to soap, it's almost irrelevant. There is no evidence that using a triclosan-enhanced product will get your hands or your dishes any cleaner than plain old soap and water. In a hospital environment where every little bit counts, its use is understandable. In your kitchen or bathroom, though, you're just wasting your money.
A few years ago, and again last year, there was some concern that widespread use of triclosan would result in resistant strains of bacteria. There have been some studies to indicate the possibility, but I haven't seen anything conclusive. But the threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria isn't the only danger. The manufacture of triclosan is known to create small quantities of dioxins and dibenzofurans, both suspected carcinogens. The EPA classifies triclosan as a pesticide and notes its risks to humans and to the environment. The chemical shows up regularly these days in environmental surveys.
How much of a risk is it? Probably not huge, but it seems irresponsible to me to employ such a strong antibiotic agent for everyday use, especially when its effectiveness is at best questionable. It's hard to convince people, though, that the "anti bacterial" bullet on the product label is just marketing hype.