The short answer is YES!

Triclosan has gained popularity over the last few years as a highly effective antibacterial agent. It is used in cosmetics to help us keep our hands germ-free and our faces clear from acne and has been integrated into our cleaning products to ensure that we can keep on eating off our floors and bench tops without a care. If you want super clean and bug-free then Triclosan has to be in it!

But the gloss has started to fade on this wonder ingredient as recent reports show. Anything that is great at killing bugs has the potential to kill us (as we are bacteria heaven really).  While it is a bit dramatic to say that Triclosan will jump out of our hand sanitizer, grab us by the throat and throttle us it seems increasingly likely that our obsession with super-clean will contribute to the growth of bigger and badder SUPER bugs! 

Triclosan. I drew it in Pink to make it look less scary!

Yes, triclosan is being studied for its potential to contribute to antibiotic resistance in germs and diseases and that is not all:

  • Triclosan bi-products have been found in increasing volumes in various water courses in the world as this article from Cosmetic Design points out.   Just mentioning the term ‘dioxin’ makes people think of cancer which isn’t totally fair but triclosan does break down into various bi-products which include dioxins.  Although these also break down relatively quickly they do affect their environment and can cause problems for local plants and algae.
  • Triclosan is poorly water-soluble which means it tends to sink into the sludge rather than mix into water and get gradually broken down.   When in the water it is highly toxic to a wide range of fresh water life including algae, fish and plants. It’s ability to kill off algae is a big problem as this is a major food source for many creatures.
  • Triclosan can bioaccumulate due to it affinity for anaerobic soil – it takes ages to break down (biodegrade).  This also increases the likelihood that river life will ingest it, especially filter feeders and bottom dwellers which many higher animals feed off.

Triclosan is a typical example of an ingredient that was tested on humans and other mammals and found to be pretty tolerable for us – yes it can be a skin irritant but that’s about it – while being completely awful for our river life.  This sounds terrible and very short-sighted and it is but if has always been difficult and time-consuming to measure the impacts of chemicals on food chains.

So what is being done about this within the industry? 

 In Australia NICNAS carried out a full report on the safety of Triclosan and made a number of recommendations including limiting the amount that can be used in cosmetic products to 0.3% or less and outlining the best way to treat effluent which may contain triclosan – it is through waste water that most triclosan enters the environment.  Globally this ingredient is under the spotlight due to its potential to contribute to antibiotic resistant bacteria and also its environmental persistance but as yet it isn’t banned.

What can I do?

You can resist the need to spray every surface in your house and your kids with antibacterial spray,  can look for products that don’t contain this ingredient – all cosmetics have to list their ingredients but household products don’t and can keep yourself informed about the safety of this and other ingredients via a number of web sites and sources (inlcluding NICNAS). 

 Triclosan is unlikely to give you cancer or make you sick in the short-term but long-term it’s not looking so rosy, especially if you are a fish! My advice is to stay informed and take only what you need from the planet. That way we can all enjoy a long and healthy future.