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Are We At The Beginning Of The End For Triclosan?

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If you happen to head into the soap, cosmetics, and dental aisles, you will no doubt find at least a few products highlighting the word, antibacterial. The word itself can bring about feelings of increased safety and improved health. It also may make you believe the product has the same benefits of an antibiotic without, of course, the need for a prescription.

The term, antibacterial, refers to products containing one of 22 different chemicals with a variety of names such as povidone iodine, phenol, and the nearly unpronounceable nonylphenoxypoly (ethyleneoxy) ethanoliodine. But the most common of these molecules is relatively familiar to anyone who has read the label of an antibacterial product. It's triclosan (and its close cousin, triclocarban).

Over the last few years, triclosan has been the subject of much debate. Those in favour of these products hail their ability to keep bacteria at bay. Those against suggest there is no real benefit in everyday consumer home use whereas the risks -- both to humans and the environment -- are too great.

In the middle of the struggle are regulatory agencies, such as Health Canada and the United States Food and Drug Administration, who are responsible for approving these chemicals. In the case of the FDA, this back-and-forth has lasted for over 40 years.

In 1974, the FDA aimed to develop a set of regulations for soaps and body washes containing antibacterial ingredients including triclosan. Back then, research was not conclusive and as such, concrete regulations could not be made. By 1978, a tentative set of rules was developed, known as a Tentative Final Order. Triclosan was on the watch list but not banned.

Over the next four decades, the information slowly trickled in. Research both for and against the use of triclosan and 18 other chemicals were published adding to the overall argument. By 2013, the FDA had seen enough and felt it was worth moving forward with a ban on these ingredients. Yet, instead of doing so unilaterally, the agency asked manufacturers and other researchers to prove them wrong. They had three years to show the chemicals were safe and also more effective than using plain soap and water.

On September 2, the clock ran out and the FDA finally came out with its final ruling. Soaps and body washes could no longer contain these 19 chemicals. Those in favour of triclosan had been dealt a significant blow.

For those concerned the absence of triclosan may lead to a greater risk for infection, there is no need to worry.

Yet even with this hit, don't expect the bell to toll for triclosan anytime soon. The ruling only represents one particular category: consumer soap. Other products containing these chemicals, such as deodorants, toothpaste, cosmetics, clothes, air filters, and even kitchenware can still use the chemical without any fear of regulatory penalty.

There is a positive aspect to this ruling that may help to change the product landscape. With the FDA ruling now in place, there is a precedent requiring manufacturers to provide studies and data proving the safety and effectiveness of certain chemicals. The action may also prompt other governments, including Canada, to re-examine already approved chemicals and possibly change their status. However, as the FDA can attest, this can take generations to accomplish. Based on the timeline to reach this announcement, we might see a ban in Canada as early as 2019 or as late as the mid-2050s.

There is, however, a more rapid and extremely effective way to convince manufacturers to reduce if not stop the use of triclosan. Simply leave those products on the shelf. When you pick up a box of toothpaste, a bottle of shower gel, or stick of deodorant, look at the ingredient list. If you happen to see triclosan or triclocarban, put the item back and look for another option. Government regulations may be a great way to restrict products destined for the market, but nothing compares to our wallets in determining what will be sold.

For those concerned the absence of triclosan may lead to a greater risk for infection, there is no need to worry. All one needs to do is wash those hands with regular soap and water. If there's no sink in sight, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with 62-70% alcohol. It's been used effectively for nearly a century and is perfectly safe for you and the environment.

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