If you're not a big fan of triclosan, you're in good company. Last Friday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a final rule that bans the ubiquitous anti-bacterial substance from soaps and other antiseptic washes, along with its cousin triclocarban.
The decision is a victory for medical professionals, environmental groups and consumer advocates, who argue that triclosan is nothing more than a consumer marketing gimmick that has been linked to negative health impacts -- but it's only a partial victory.
Triclosan in every pot
Triclosan was formulated in the 1960s by the Swiss company Ciba. It was in commercial use by 1972, but it was confined primarily to medical facilities.
By the 1990s, public fears over the spread of disease kicked off a high demand for over-the-counter anti-bacterial products, which personal care manufacturers were happy to accommodate. The mania for cleanliness also spread into many other household products.
Triclosan's long history of use by medical professionals provided it with a crucial trust-building angle for dominating the market.
However, evidence soon began to mount that triclosan is actually not effective when used as a wash product. Studies show it does reduce bacteria counts, but that effect does not translate into reducing the risk of infection. Quite simply, when you wash your hands with a triclosan product, all of the good stuff goes down the drain.
In other words, plain soap and water work just as well.
Reflecting those findings, the new FDA ban applies specifically to soap and other products used with water:
"... Companies will no longer be able to market antibacterial washes with these ingredients because manufacturers did not demonstrate that the ingredients are both safe for long-term daily use and more effective than plain soap and water in preventing illness and the spread of certain infections."
The new ban does not apply to hand sanitizers, which are meant to be used without water. The ban also does not apply to triclosan products used in health facilities.
Significantly, the ban does not apply to toothpaste, an area in which FDA has seen enough evidence to demonstrate a measurable clinical benefit.
The trouble with triclosan
Though triclosan failed to deliver on the anti-bacterial promises made by soap manufacturers, it delivered some other, unwanted, findings to public health researchers.
The American Chemical Society's Chemical & Engineering News summed up some of the findings in a 2014 article titled, "Triclosan Under the Microscope."
The author, Jyllian Kemsley, makes the point that everyday use of a triclosone soap would actually result in a negligible exposure to the substance.
That's where the partial victory angle comes in. The problem is that triclosan is widely used in many different products. Factor in contaminated air, water and food products, and the risk of unsafe levels of exposure goes up.
Do read the full article for many more details, but for those of you on the go Kemsley points to these findings in particular:
"Triclosan can hinder cardiac and skeletal muscle contraction ..."
"Triclosan also appears to disrupt signaling of the endocrine system ..."
"In addition to concerns about human toxicity, scientists are also worried that broad use of triclosan will promote antibiotic resistance ...."
"... triclosan inhibits enoyl-acyl carrier protein reductase, a key enzyme in bacterial fatty acid synthesis ..."
Away goes trouble down the drain...or not
Kemsley also pays attention to studies that cover the potential environmental impact of the triclosan that ends up in the sewers when used as a wash product.
Depending on your local municipal wastewater treatment facility to handle the problem is a mistake. According to Kemsley's sources, roughly half of the substance escapes treatment.
That leads to findings like this:
"... EPA in its 2008 assessment [of triclosan] determined that about 270 micrograms per liter (µg/L) will kill 50 percent of freshwater fish in 96 hours, and about 400 µg/L will kill 50 percent of freshwater invertebrates in 96 hours. Both values qualify triclosan as highly toxic to aquatic organisms ..."
"For freshwater aquatic plants, EPA noted that triclosan inhibited 50% of plant growth at 16 µg/L for freshwater diatoms, 1.2 µg/L for cyanobacteria, and as low as 0.7 µg/L for green algae."
"Triclosan may also accumulate in fatty tissue in fish, ultimately causing harmful effects through endocrine disruption or other mechanisms."
All of this explains why organizations like Beyond Pesticides and Food and Water Watch are pushing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take a closer look at the substance.
Here's the money quote from Beyond Pesticides, which responded to the FDA announcement with this observation:
"... The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has jurisdiction over household products containing triclosan (microban), continues to allow the use of this hazardous chemical in numerous plastic and textile products, from toys, cutting boards, hair brushes, sponges, computer keyboards to socks and undergarments."
As of May 2015, EPA responded to a citizen petition by agreeing to re-visit its assessment of triclosan in pesticides.
The market responds
Even before FDA's final rule, the market began to respond to the rising public awareness of triclosan and other toxic additives in consumer products.
Target is one standout example. The company established a Sustainable Product Index that includes triclosan among the substances to be avoided by its suppliers.
As of 2014, Colgate-Palmolive, Avon and Johnson & Johnson are among the legacy companies working to remove the substance from their products.
More recently, in July of this year Walmart included it among a list of eight substances it will require its suppliers to stop using.
Companies that failed to plan ahead for the new rule have a lot of catching up to do. Triclosan and a related substance, triclocarban, are only two of 19 substances covered by the new FDA rule.
In addition, three other substances (benzalkonium chloride, benzethonium chloride and chloroxylenol) could face the hatchet next year.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.