Less good than harm?

A recent Earthtalk column summarizes research by Aiello et al. that calls into question the practice of adding triclosan as an antibacterial ingredient to consumer products. The literature review, published in Clinical Infectious Diseases, asked two questions: (1) Does triclosan, in the typical consumer formulations (0.2-0.3% by weight), do anything more towards preventing infectious disease than ordinary soap? (2) Does triclosan contribute to the emergence of bacteria that can tolerate the chemical, and can this tolerance jump species? The answer to (1), per “Consumer Antibacterial Soaps: Effective or Just Risky?”, is no, while the evidence for (2) is less clear. The research team found evidence from lab-based studies of antibiotic cross-resistance, but field studies did not provide equally strong support for the claim.

It’s worth noting that we’re talking about the concentrations used in over-the-counter soaps and hand sanitizers, not the 1% and more used in surgical scrubs. (Shockingly, how much triclosan can be added to soap is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.) In other words, there’s enough of the stuff in your soap that it may be making staph and strep stronger, but not enough to kill the bugs. Deader than they are, that is, by just washing your hands.

Triclosan seems to be in everything these days. As hard as it is to read a food product label to find out whether it’s got wheat (and is therefore verboten for someone with celiac sprue), it’s equally hard to find out about triclosan in products from the health and beauty aids aisle. Leta found triclosan in a container of shaving gel. Fortunately, some manufacturers, like Method, are now labeling their soaps as triclosan-free.