Sometimes referred to as TCS, triclosan is a potent antifungal and antibacterial chemical compound that is regulated both as a pesticide and a drug. Its usage began in the early 1970s as a hospital surgical scrub. Since then, it’s found its way into many personal care items and other commercial products mainly as a preservative to extend their shelf life and to destroy bacteria that produce fetid body odor.
Triclosan is a controversial chemical compound. Some experts claim short-term exposure poses no health danger, arguing it can be rapidly expelled from the body. Others even claim long-term exposure isn’t as risky. Still, others advocate its continued use in medical products but not in cosmetic and personal care items due, among other reasons, to its contribution to ‘superbugs’ production.
Triclosan exposure, mainly via ingestion and skin contact, is a health hazard. It can be detected in breast milk, urine, blood samples, and other body fluids at levels that are well correlated with the use of antiperspirants and personal care items. And although it can be used to treat skin infections like impetigo and weals because of its anti-inflammatory properties, long-term exposure, particularly through the use of triclosan-containing personal care products, can cause allergic contact dermatitis (skin irritation, rashes, etc.). Further long- and short-term exposure can lead to muscle tissue weakness. Triclosan disrupts the endocrine system function by significantly impacting thyroid hormone concentrations and therefore the ability of the body to regulate its metabolic rate. It’s found to be a major contributor to the high incidence of food allergies.
There’s a claim that triclosan inhibits fatty acid synthesis in cancer cells. For this reason, there’s the belief that it can assist in the treatment of breast, lung, ocular, pancreatic and several other cancers. The irony, however, is that the World Health Organization doesn’t see it as a cancer treatment option but rather a cancer-causing chemical, and has classified it as such.
Findings from many toxicology studies suggest that triclosan is highly toxic to the environment. Concentrations that are high enough to adversely affect micro-organisms have been measured in wastewater treatment plants. The problem is that it is not clear how much micro-organisms would actually absorb. Triclosan’s impact extends beyond bacteria to fish, algae, dolphins, mussels, and amphibians. Like humans, it disrupts the endocrine system of aquatic organisms. In terrestrial ecosystems, it inhibits the growth of many plants, including cucumber and rice.
Apart from the direct impact on humans and the environment, there’s a raging concern about triclosan’s ability to wipe away a wide spectrum of good and bad bacteria. The overarching evidence from extensive work done in this field suggests that triclosan contributes tremendously to the ‘breeding’ of ‘superbugs’ or antibiotic-resistant bacteria strains (e.g. Staphylococcus aureus and Escherichia coli). There’re several mechanisms by which these bacteria strains are able to render antibiotics ineffective: they can undergo mutation; activate resistant genes; develop mechanisms to expel the triclosan; or bypass the steps in the reactions where the chemical can affect them. These defense mechanisms may be passed on from one bacteria generation to another or from one bacterium to another, making it difficult to eradicate the harmful ones when the need arises.
In 2006, the US Food and Drug Administration banned triclosan from personal care product formulas. The European Commission also banned it from antibacterial products in the same year. However, calls for it to be banned in Australia has gone unheeded. Nonetheless, some manufacturers are taking unilateral steps to exclude it from their products.