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A chemical widely used in all kinds of personal hygiene products including toothpaste and hand soap was found to increase the risk of cancer in lab mice. Is it time to quit using goods that contain triclosan?

"Germ-killer in soap may also be liver killer", "Soap antimicrobial may damage liver and raise cancer risk", and "Is cancer lurking in your toothpaste?" are among the alarming headlines you may have seen over the last few days. The story behind those alarming messages is about triclosan, an antibacterial addictive present in many liquid hand soaps, toothpastes, shampoos and other personal hygiene products — but also in clothes, toys, and even kitchenware. 

Should you be worried that the very products you thought of as an essential part of your personal care are making you ill? Let's take a deeper look at what triclosan is, and what the study that caused your panic actually found. 

What Is Triclosan?

Triclosan is an antibacterial component that is added to a huge number of commonly used products. Examples include Colgate Total toothpaste, Dial liquid hand soap, Clearasil daily face wash, First Aid Medicated Spray, Diabet-x cream, and Biofresh socks. Those really are just examples though, as the complete list of products that contain triclosan is very long. 

Triclosan was approved as an ingredient by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1997, and a great many products that contain this ingredient are currently FDA-approved. It is, however, currently under FDA review because of reports that the chemical interferes with hormone regulation in animals, could contribute to the rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and may damage the immune system.

While those things are scary, they're not why triclosan has been in the news so much recently. That is due to a new study that suggested triclosan may cause liver damage and raise the risk of cancer.

Study Renews Fears That Triclosan Could Be Dangerous

Researchers from the University of California found that long-term exposure to this chemical — which is, remember, found in many products you may be using on a daily basis — could increase the risk of cancer. Their study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that repeated exposure to triclosan causes cancer and liver fibrosis in lab mice. 

Mice exposed to the chemical for six months were at an increased risk of liver tumors induced by the chemical, and their tumors were also larger. The same chemical processes by which these mice developed cancer also apply to humans, but six months in a mouse life is equivalent to roughly 18 years of a human life. 

Study co-author Doctor Robert Tukey — professor in the departments of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Pharmacology at University of California, San Diego School of Medicine — said:

"Triclosan's increasing detection in environmental samples and its increasingly broad use in consumer products may overcome its moderate benefit and present a very real risk of liver toxicity for people."

He adds that their lab mice were exposed to much larger amounts of triclosan than humans would be through toothpaste. Toothpaste is far from the only place in which this chemical is used, however, and while this study made a new discovery it is not the first time triclosan has come under fire. A 2003 study showed that triclosan could turn into a mild dioxin upon exposure to sunlight, while a 2008 study found the chemical in a whopping 75 percent of adults and children tested. 

What You Should Know About Triclosan In Your Products

The FDA says that it is "engaged in an ongoing scientific and regulatory review of this ingredient". It adds that it doesn't currently have "sufficient safety evidence to recommend changing consumer use of products that contain triclosan at this time" and that the ingredient isn't currently known to be dangerous to people. 

However, it does point consumers to the ingredients list in their medications and cosmetics, in case they would prefer to avoid triclosan. That, combined with its review of the ingredient, is quite telling. Note that ingredients lists will sometimes contain the word "antimicrobial protection" instead, and that this usually still means triclosan. Many manufacturers are currently removing triclosan from their products because of public pressure, so you may find that newer versions of your favorite products no longer contain this chemical.

People who are committed to avoiding triclosan can always check the websites of products they use to find out if any changes have been made, or they could write to the manufacturer to find out more.

  • www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/11235895/Toothpaste-chemical-may-increase-risk-of-cancer-warn-scientists.html
  • www.fda.gov/forconsumers/consumerupdates/ucm205999.htm
  • news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/2950867.stm