While long-term research in humans is lacking, several studies of the effects of triclosan in mice and rats found adverse health effects at high concentrations, including reduced fertility and increased cancer risk. Although, it’s difficult to say if these results would translate into humans, especially since we’ve been exposed to triclosan in various products for decades. Recent headlines with phrases like “cancer-causing chemical” or “cancer-linked ingredient” are overhyped and fail to account for this.
And while any link with cancer probably sounds scary, it’s important to keep in mind that the compound is in the toothpaste for a reason: It helps fight gingivitis, a common disease that causes inflammation and bleeding of the gums.
Do the benefits that triclosan provides in Colgate Total toothpaste outweigh the risks? Or should you throw it in the trash and switch to Crest, which is advertised as 100% triclosan free?
These risk versus benefits analyses are very personal questions, and we can’t say for sure if you should switch, but here’s what we do know about triclosan.
What is triclosan?
Triclosan is an antimicrobial agent, meaning that it helps to “slow or stop the growth of bacteria, fungi, and mildew,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency. It first started to appear in antibacterial hand soap products in the 1970s.
Since then, triclosan has been added to a ton of things — “it has been used in consumer products such as detergents, soaps, skin cleansers, deodorants, lotions, creams, toothpastes, and dishwashing liquids,” according to a CDC factsheet. Many of those products labelled with “antibacterial” potentially contain triclosan or a related compound.
What are the risks?
The truth is, we don’t fully know what the risks of triclosan use are. “The human health effects from exposure to low environmental levels of triclosan are unknown … More research is needed to assess the human health effects of exposure to triclosan,” according to a Centres for Disease Control and Prevention factsheet.
What’s worrisome is that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has never issued a comprehensive ruling on triclosan’s effectiveness and safety — even though it originally said it would look into triclosan in 1974. Now, the FDA says it will issue a ruling on triclosan in 2016.
But because of consumer concers about safety and environmental impacts, triclosan has been phased out of many soap products because of mounting evidence that these products don’t provide health benefits above regular soap and water.
Tests in animals have raised some red flags. For example, one study found that triclosan promoted breast cancer in cells in the lab and in mice. Another study found that exposure to triclosan during fetal development caused neurological damage in some rats.
But it is important to recognise that chemicals can affect animals differently than humans, and also animal testing can involve sky-high doses of the chemical in question. However, these kinds of findings in animals mean further testing is warranted before the product is approved for humans.
Direct impacts of the chemical on your body aren’t the only concerns about the additive. In the mid-2000s, environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defence Council, started to raise concerns that the inclusion of triclosan in soaps might be contributing to the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria, which can cause dangerous infections that are hard to treat. Since soaps get washed down the drain and eventually end up in water systems, they also found that triclosan could disrupt the algae and wildlife found in water ecosystems. For example, Canadian scientists found that exposure to triclosan caused developmental issues in bullfrogs.
The Environmental Protection Agency website states that triclosan ” potentially pos[es] a concern for aquatic organisms.” The agency plans to reevaluate triclosan, but it remains a registered pesticide.
What are the benefits?
According to Colgate’s website: “Reviews by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the American Dental Association, and government agencies around the world confirm triclosan’s safe use in toothpaste and recognise that Colgate Total provides an important health benefit.”
The website also states that the “safety and effectiveness” of the product is supported by more than 80 scientific studies, involving 19,000 people.
Last year, an independent review of the existing research on triclosan in toothpaste concluded that the chemical “reduced plaque, gingival inflammation, and gingival bleeding” but that those reductions “may or may not be clinically important.” Triclosan-containing toothpaste was also associated with a “small reduction” in cavities.
“There do not appear to be any serious safety concerns regarding the use of triclosan… toothpastes in studies up to three years in duration,” the reviewers concluded.
Colgate is quick to point out that real-world evidence seems to echo these results.
“In the nearly 18 years that Colgate Total has been on the market in the U.S., there has been no signal of a safety issue from adverse-event reports,” Thomas DiPiazza, a Colgate spokesperson told Bloomberg.
Colgate did not return our request for comment. (We will update this post if we hear back.)
What’s the bottom line?
So, should you throw away your tube of Colgate Total? Basically, that’s up to you.
If the results of these animal trials scare you or you are worried about triclosan seeping into the environment, and you don’t have gingivitis, you might want to switch toothpastes. But, the current FDA stance is that “triclosan is not known to be hazardous to humans” and that there is not “sufficient safety evidence” to recommend that consumers stop using products containing triclosan.
Once again it’s important to reiterate that oftentimes in studies, animals are given very high doses of a chemical relative to the actual levels that humans would consume. So unless you plan on eating a whole tube of Colgate Total (not recommended for other reasons), you probably will be fine. And also, before you switch to a “natural” toothpaste, you might want to know that Tom’s of Maine happens to be a subsidiary of Colgate-Palmolive Co.
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