Triclosan, an antibacterial chemical found in hand sanitizers, liquid soaps, toothpastes, and a host of other consumer products, has come under major fire lately. Along with potentially disrupting human sex hormones and hindering fetal development, triclosan—along with its close chemical counterpart triclocarbon—may have severe environmental impacts, as it breaks down into dioxins and makes its way into water sources to harm marine life. Now, the Environmental Protection Agency is considering reassessing its stance on triclosan in response to a petition submitted by 82 environmental and public health groups led by Beyond Pesticides and Food & Water Watch.
Larry Weiss, MD, has been studying triclosan and its health impacts for years, which prompted him to start CleanWell, a San Francisco-based company that makes all-natural thyme-based antibacterial liquid hand sanitizers, soaps and sanitizing wipes. Weiss talks with NewHope360 about how triclosan came to be in consumer products, how it affects the population and planet, and how consumers, retailers, manufacturers, and policymakers play a collective role in shifting our nation’s notion of hygiene.
Q: How is triclosan harmful?
A: Triclosan is a multiple hormone disrupter—thyroid, estrogen, androgen. Recent data shows it affects neurodevelopment in fetuses. It also degrades into dioxins that persist in the environment.
Q: How did triclosan ever come to be used in soaps, hand sanitizers and toothpastes?
A: Before triclosan, another chemical called Phisohex (active ingredient hexachlorophene) started out in health care and then was pushed to the consumer market to help fight acne. It turned out to be toxic, so the FDA withdrew it. Then triclosan came along, and it wasn’t as toxic. It had been developed for use in clinical settings, but if companies could say their products were antibacterial, they could sell more products, so triclosan began migrating to more and more products. Its main benefit was that it wasn’t as bad as last guy (Phisohex), but it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that it would end up in 4 billion to 6 billion products. Back then the idea that it’s a hormone disrupter and it degrades to dioxins wasn’t known.
Q: Does triclosan assume any other aliases on labels?
A: No, the FDA requires that triclosan be on labels.
Q: What about triclocarbon? What is this and how is it different from triclosan?
A: Their structures are close, and the way they work is almost identical. It’s difficult to formulate bar soap with triclosan, so it goes into liquid soaps and deodorants. Triclocarbon is then used in bar soaps.
Q: Are triclosan and triclocarbon found in any natural products?
A: There’s nothing natural about triclosan. Almost all products containing it are mass-market consumer products. And alcohol-based products don’t have triclosan.
Q: Then how do these chemicals affect natural products consumers?
A: For the most part, triclosan and triclocarbon are not found in the products that natural products stores sell. However, the way in which natural products consumers interact with these chemicals is by using hand soaps in public restrooms. Also, most natural products consumers still use some traditional consumer products, such as soaps, toothpastes, deodorants, etc., that may contain triclosan or triclocarbon. It is important to read product labels, even if it’s a product that you and your family have used for years.
Q: So triclosan really isn’t necessary? Not even to fight germs?
A: Triclosan is a metaphor for a lot of things we’ve done wrong regarding public health and infection control. The metaphor that we are “at war with” germs doesn’t sit with me, because nature doesn’t do war; nature needs balance. It’s dangerous and ridiculous when people think that germs are out there to kill them. So we need to change the thinking to “living in accord with” the bacterial world. These bacterial colonies (also called microbiomes) take care of us—they protect us from infection and help digestion. We are stewards of these bacteria; we help them to take care of us. So we need to restore reasonable balance.
Q: How to we shift this metaphor?
A: Small changes in personal hygiene can have significant impact on public health. Insufficient and improper hand-washing is a human behavior problem. New technology (triclosan) was developed for use in the health care setting, but it didn’t improve hand-washing or practices. If I could get people to wash hands five times a day, the impact on public health would be significant. Soap and water is the most significant medical advance of all time. We need to improve compliance, and that is just a matter of behavior change. We need to teach by example: Parents need to say to their kids, “Hey, let’s go wash our hands together.”
If we can improve people’s hand hygiene, we don’t need to wage war on germs. In the end, we need to change the personal hygiene behavior of as many people as possible, because you can improve your own hygiene, but if everyone around you doesn’t, you’re still going to get sick.
Q: You want to change people’s personal hygiene habits—but doesn’t that mean more washing with soap and water? How does increasing use of natural antibacterial products like CleanWell factor in?
A: Both have a place. Whenever soap and water are available, hand-washing is absolutely the best practice. Sometimes it is not an option, and that is where hand sanitizers or hand sanitizing wipes can play an important role. It is important to keep in mind that what we are trying to do is prevent the spread of illness and that the final step in that spread is when our hands touch our nose or mouth.
Q: Between the EPA and the FDA, which agency actually regulates triclosan as used in personal care products?
A: The EPA handles disinfectants, surface cleaners, etc., while the FDA regulates things that affect people and animals. In the case of triclosan, the EPA is more symbolic since most of the products that contain triclosan (soaps, toothpaste, deodorants, etc.) are actually regulated by the FDA. But EPA action is meaningful because, although most of the triclosan people use is in soap, once it goes down the drain, it becomes an EPA issue. The movement and comment periods are a necessary part of the process to get people to respect triclosan as a real issue.
The EPA probably wouldn’t come out and ban the use of triclosan, but it could change its toxicity rating, which would go a long way to limiting its use. The EPA strictly controls which chemicals can be used as disinfectants and how they can be used. If the agency puts restrictions on product labels, it is much less likely that they will end up in the hands of consumers. The FDA, which regulates most of the products containing triclosan that consumers use today, has publicly stated that it believes triclosan is widely overused. Unfortunately, the monograph that covers these products has been stalled since 1994. This has prevented any effective action on triclosan. However, the recent attention from the EPA, as well as the action by consumers and Congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts may trigger more definitive regulatory action.
Q: Until government action occurs, where do we go next in eradicating triclosan from products?
A: I’m a pathological optimist. I’m not exactly sure how we’ll get there, but I believe the shortest path is not the regulatory one. It’s phenomenal to have people make comments [to the EPA], and Food & Water Watch has done a great job. If we empower people to think critically and to make smart decisions, that’s real democracy in action. We want people to say, “I don’t want [triclosan] my life. If I don’t buy products containing it, [companies] won’t make them anymore.”
Q: With CleanWell, you’re doing just that: creating an effective natural product without triclosan. How do CleanWell products work?
A: Our active ingredient in all CleanWell products is a proprietary blend of the essential oils from thyme and oregano, a technology that has been pre-optimized in nature. We formulated products so they behave like they do in the natural world. Humans have known that thyme and oregano have antimicrobial [properties] even before we understood what that meant. What we have done with CleanWell is create products that are safe, effective and formulated appropriately for use by young families. We want to create a reasonable boundary against infection, and at the same time encourage better personal hygiene.
At the same time, all products that make germ-killing claims must pass certain regulatory requirements. Among these are specific laboratory standards for germ-killing efficacy. This represented a significant technical challenge—it is not as simple as mixing thyme oil in water and it has taken us many years of research and development to get where we are today. The result is that, instead of giving people scary toxic chemicals and telling them scary stories about germs to get them to use the chemicals, we took a page from nature’s playbook. This is how nature solves a problem. When you put a chemical into daily products, you enter it into the global problem
Q: How are sales? Are people responding to CleanWell’s products, message and mission?
A: We’ve grown dramatically: 2010 was our biggest year, and 2009 was good because of H1N1. Our best-seller is our 1-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer. Five years ago, people didn’t read product labels, but today people are reading and asking questions. Young parents are highly networked. Informed consumers who ask questions are our best customers. In addition, CleanWell hand sanitizer has the same pH as healthy skin. People with eczema write to us all the time to say that they love our products.
Q: What are retailers saying?
A: People are passionate about what we’re doing. Sometimes I have to remind myself that we’re making soap. Retailers do research, not just on what we’re presenting but about stuff you see everywhere you look. Retailers are coming to us and saying, “We’re not happy [triclosan and other harmful chemicals] are out there.” Nobody wants to be selling something they think is making their customers and community sick. So they turn to us. This passion is very exciting. This is how democracy really works: people educating themselves.
Q: How long will it take for triclosan in personal care to be a thing of the past?
A: Excellent question. Soon, I hope.