Triclosan: Just another chemical (get the f*** over it)

Rachel Southee

You’ve probably already heard the one about New Zealand Member of Parliament Jacqui Dean asking a Government Minister to ban Dihydrogen Oxide. It wasn’t her finest hour, but she’s not the only MP around the world to fall victim to a hoax illuminating their lack of scientific literacy.

Meanwhile, acetic acid (vinegar), sodium chloride (salt), ethanol (alcohol), and sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) are just a few of the other ‘scary’ sounding chemicals that are probably safely stored away in your kitchen cupboard.

Which is hopefully a timely reminder to all and sundry: Everything is a f****** chemical.

Last week that pinnacle of highbrow journalism Fairfax media, published an article with the bombastic headline “Chemical in Colgate Total possible hormone disrupter and carcinogenic”. A similarly titled piece “Ingredient in Colgate Total should not be sold over the counter, says chemistry expert” then appeared in that other almost – nearly Pulitzer Prize winning rag nzherald.co.nz. In brief, both pieces suggested the public be weary of a toothpaste branded ‘Colgate Total’, this had come amid fears that the presence of a chemical called triclosan was s o m e t h i n g something and banned by the FDA.

Commercial media outlets seem to take great pride exhibiting willful ignorance in matters of high school level chemistry, all the while skipping through the opinions of those persons suitably qualified to temper down such alarmist rhetoric. At least by quoting Dr Michelle Dickinson, the Herald had made a half assed attempt at moderating their click bait headline with a little critical perspective.

But if I am not already appalled enough by the quality of such online content, I just need to scroll to the bottom of a story and read the comments made by a hysterical public. For it is now that I can fully appreciate how gullible our society has become. The knowledge gaps in science communication are only exacerbated by the likes of Dr Libby and Dr Oz whose assumed authority as medical experts can and should be viewed with a fair degree of skepticism.

Our collective scientific literacy has become so god damn awful I expect a sideways look just asking my neighbour how much sucrose she’d like in her tea.

So, for the sake of balance.

Triclosan, is an antibacterial ingredient that has been used in countless products, and has been for some two decades. Now, time alone does not automatically make something safe, but it does lend to the possibility that a product has been thoroughly tested. And as it turns out, Colgate Total is one of the most thoroughly researched toothpastes in the world.

The Cochrane Systematic Review of Triclosan in toothpaste, which can be found here, said the following regarding its efficacy:

“The evidence produced shows benefits in using a triclosan/copolymer fluoride toothpaste when compared with a fluoride toothpaste (without triclosan/copolymer). There was a 22% reduction in plaque, a 22% reduction in gingivitis, a 48% reduction in bleeding gums…”  

For the unwashed, Cochrane systematic reviews are the gold standard. They are ‘meta’ or let’s say ‘mega’ reviews, in this case the Cochrane researchers independently pooled 30 peer reviewed papers.  They also assessed the evidence pertaining to harmfulness, and this was their conclusion:

“There was no evidence of any harmful effects associated with the use of triclosan/copolymer toothpastes in studies up to three years in length.”  

Still want to ‘do your own research?’, you could seek out the Material Safety Data Sheet. This is where you can find the relationship between a chemical and its toxicity. Like many chemicals, Triclosan in HIGH concentrations can be very harmful, and there is still ongoing research into whether or not there is a link between its use in smaller concentrations of Triclosan and hormone disruption in children.

The worthwhile takeaway point in all this is that the amount of Triclosan in Colgate toothpaste is 0.3%, sufficiently low for the FDA to not ban it on the basis of the best research available.

So actions taken by the FDA regarding Triclosan can be summarised as follows:

  • There was a negligible ‘benefit to risk’ ratio for Triclosan present in hand soap, but a strong ‘benefit to risk’ ratio in toothpaste.
  • As there was little proven consequential benefit in hand soap, with some degree of harm to the environment – the FDA withdrew its approval of Triclosan and other antibacterial compounds from their use in hand soap.
  • As there was measurable benefits to humans and still no evidence of harm, the FDA approved the ongoing use of toothpaste such as Colgate Total.

Having now disposed of the premise that led to much of the nonsense regarding Triclosan, there is one aspect of the original story which had some real merit; aquatic life will likely respond differently to particular concentrations than what the human body does. And if our wastewater treatment plants do not process out the Triclosan prior to discharge, then such minute concentrations could still be harmful to aquatic life.

Unfortunately, wastewater treatment plants are not designed to entirely remove such trace elements – but this is not an issue that is unique to Triclosan, it is just that the media generally ignore the already well established waste issues that are responsible for destroying our freshwater ecosystems *cough* intensive farming practices *cough*.

Science is subject to change, that’s how it works.  The evidence for or against Triclosan could one day shift, but it is important that proactive choices by scientists to investigate something further (as is what’s happening with Triclosan) are not confused with a presumption of harm.

The kerfuffle regarding Triclosan only strengthens my view that we need more funding for science communication (as well as more funding for actual research). And maybe some of those funds could be used to ensure that journalists get a crash course in year 11 chemistry.

But that’s probably just a pipe dream.

Perhaps i’ll just email Jacqui Dean, she ended up making it into Government and is now Minister for Consumer Affairs.

TL;DR?  Not eating toothpaste has always been a good idea, along with consulting your dentist for the oral heath advice that is best suited to your personal requirements.

Rachel Southee has a BEng (1st Class Honors) from the University of Waikato.