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FAQ: Triclosan and Your Health

FDA Reviewing Antibacterial Chemical Widely Used in Soaps and Body Washes
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

April 9, 2010 -- With the FDA reviewing the antibacterial chemical triclosan, widely found in everyday products such as hand soaps, body washes, toothpastes, cosmetics, toys, clothing, and furniture, should you or shouldn't you ditch products with this ingredient?

Here are the most frequently asked questions about triclosan, with answers from experts on both sides of the debate, to help you decide.

Q: What is triclosan?

Triclosan is a chemical added to many products for its antibacterial action.

Q: How long has it been in use?

''It's been in use for over 40 years," says Brian Sansoni, a spokesman for the Soap and Detergent Association, whose members produce soaps and body washes. Initially, its use was only in health care settings such as hospitals, he says.

In the last 15 years, triclosan began showing up in consumer hygiene products, he says.

Q: What prompted the recent FDA investigation of triclosan?

The FDA announcement this week about triclosan was in response to a letter from Rep. Edward J. Markey, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment.

Markey had sent the letter in January, requesting information about the status of the FDA's ongoing review of triclosan in consumer products.

Markey is concerned and is calling for the FDA to ban the use of triclosan in personal care products. He wants the Environmental Protection Agency to take steps, too, such as evaluating the potential of triclosan -- washed down the drain with personal care product use -- to contaminate drinking water and contribute to antibiotic resistance.

Q: Where does the FDA stand, for now, on triclosan?

Triclosan ''is not known to be hazardous to humans," according to the FDA statement issued this week.

In 1997, the FDA reviewed data on triclosan in one specific toothpaste, Colgate Total, and found that the triclosan in it was effective in preventing gingivitis, the inflamed gum condition that marks the beginning of periodontal disease.

(Markey has asked the FDA to re-evaluate this approval, as the review was done before health concerns arose about triclosan.)

As for triclosan added to soaps and body washes, the FDA say there is no evidence that these products provide any extra health benefits over plain soap and water.

The FDA say it is continuing to review the safety of triclosan in the products it regulates. It is partnering with the EPA to study the effects on environmental health.

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