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Coming Clean
After decades spent washing its hands of concerns about antibacterial soaps, the government is finally taking action on a potentially harmful ingredient: triclosan.

One thing that occasionally annoys my wife about being married to an environmental journalist: I make our household shopping a lot more complicated. Canned tomatoes? Might contain BPA. Cleaning products? Could have VOCs. But a year ago, when I explained why I had started obsessively checking the ingredients in liquid soap, she quickly got on board and even warned my son’s preschool that it needed to change products.

Now, after decades of foot-dragging, the U.S. government is finally poised to get on board, as well, requiring manufacturers to either prove that products used by millions of Americans every day are safe—or change them.

You can find the offending ingredient, triclosan, in most antibacterial soaps at your local supermarket or drugstore. As OnEarth reported last year, tricolosan is a hormone-altering chemical; studies have linked similar endocrine disruptors to early-onset puberty, reduced fertility, obesity, and cancer. Lab animals exposed to triclosan have shown impaired muscle function and heart problems. There is even evidence that it might affect our immune responsiveness—making kids more susceptible to food allergies, for instance.

What to Look For

All personal care products that contain triclosan must list it as an active ingredient on the label. It’s likely to be found in products advertised as “antibacterial,” but not always. The U.S Department of Health and Human Services provides a list, but here are some of the most popular products containing it:

Dial Liquid Soap, Body Wash, and Antibacterial Bar Soap

Palmolive Ultra Antibacterial Hand Soap

Ultra Dawn Dishwashing Liquid and Antibacerial Hand Soap

Lever 2000 Antibacterial Soap Bar

Clearasil Daily Face Wash

Ajax Antibacterial Dish Liquid

Palmolive Aromatherapy Liquid Hand Soap

Colgate Total Toothpaste

Vaseline Intensive Care Antibacterial Hand Lotion

Suave Liquid Hand Soap, Antibacterial

Noxzema Triple Clean Antibacterial Lathering Cleanser

Revlon ColorStay LipSHINE Lipcolor Plus Gloss

What’s more, adding tricolosan to antibacterial soaps, deodorants, and other products fails at its intended purpose: killing germs. At least 27 studies (to date) show repeatedly that it works no better than washing your hands with soap and water.

Some of the information about triclosan’s dangers and ineffectiveness is emerging research. But a lot of it has been known for decades. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration first proposed removing triclosan from over-the-counter products in 1978, in response to studies showing that it wasn’t effective and could impair brain development in children. But the agency never followed through.

Today, $1 billion worth of antibacterial products—including half of all the hand soaps sold in the United States, as well as deodorants, body washes, toothpaste, and mouthwash—contain triclosan. So it’s no wonder that 75 percent of Americans over the age of six have triclosan in their bodies, according to a 2008 study.

In 2010, the Natural Resources Defense Council, which publishes OnEarth, sued the FDA to force it to rule on triclosan’s safety; on Monday, the agency finally announced it was taking the steps required in a settlement it had reached last month with NRDC: namely, to force manufacturers that put triclosan in their products to prove it is safe for long-term use and more effective than soap and water. If they can’t, they’ll have to reformulate their products, re-label them, or get rid of them entirely.

Fortunately, some companies aren’t waiting. Johnson & Johnson says it is phasing out triclosan from personal care products. And Colgate-Palmolive took it out of dish and hand soaps (though it’s still in some toothpaste). Kaiser Permanente has banned it from the health care system’s hospitals in nine states.

In my house, we’ve also gone triclosan-free; even when my son washes up elsewhere, he still checks the label. If my four-year-old can figure it out, it’s time the FDA did, too.

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image of Scott Dodd
Scott Dodd is the editorial director of NRDC, which publishes OnEarth. He was a newspaper reporter for 12 years, contributing to coverage of Hurricane Katrina that won a Pulitzer Prize, and has written for Scientific American, Slate, and other publications. CJR praised his expansion of OnEarth.org as an outlet for "bang-up investigative journalism." He also teaches at Columbia University. MORE STORIES ➔
Comments (1)
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Thanks for the information.. We defiantly get rid of this harsh chemical. Because of triclosan mrsa bacteria becomes stronger and more resistant, people become more susceptible to antibiotic-resistant, and often deadly, diseases like MRSA.