What to Know About Triclosan in Your Cosmetics
When’s the last time you looked at the ingredients lists of the products you use on your skin?
If you’re a regular label reader, or even if you just glance at product labels before you make a purchase, you’ve probably noticed the almost-dizzying array of ingredients. And you might have a hard time pronouncing many of those ingredients.
We assume they’re safe, but how much do we really know about them?
Although a lot of the ingredients used in cosmetics and personal care products pose little risk to our health, exposure to some of the more prevalent manmade chemicals has been linked to serious health problems. According to American advocacy organization Environmental Working Group (EWG), between 2009 and 2020, as many as 595 cosmetics manufacturers reported using 88 chemicals—in more than 73,000 products—that have been linked to cancer, birth defects, or reproductive harm.
One such ingredient is triclosan, and whether you know it or not, you could be using triclosan-containing products regularly, and maybe even on a daily basis.
Keep reading for everything you need to know about triclosan, including what it is, where it is lurking, and what it means for clean beauties like you.
What is triclosan?
Triclosan (pronounced trai-klow-san) is a chemical that acts as a preservative and an antimicrobial agent, which kills or stops the growth of microorganisms like bacteria and fungus.
Triclosan was first introduced in the 1960s in hospitals and other health care settings, used in things like surgical scrubs and hand wash to prevent infection. The chemical eventually made its way into the consumer market, and since then the consumption of triclosan has increased in the United States and worldwide.
Today, triclosan is used in thousands of everyday products, including personal care products like antibacterial soaps and detergents, face cleansers, toothpaste, antiperspirants and deodorants, and items such as cutting boards, children’s toys, garbage bags, and shoes—all to prevent bacterial contamination and the accompanying odors.
Similarly, a common chemical called triclocarban also has antibacterial properties and is used for the same purpose as triclosan in many everyday products.
Triclosan in cosmetics
Considered a pesticide for its ability to kill bacteria and fungus, triclosan is found in a wide range of cosmetics and personal care products. Within this family of products, triclosan is used as a preservative in water-based formulations for makeup products, aftershave lotions, bath products, hair shampoos and conditioners, shaving products, skincare products, and suntan products.
As a bacteriostatic agent that minimizes body odor caused by bacteria, triclosan can also be found in deodorants, foot sprays, body sprays, and personal cleanliness products. And as an antibacterial agent, triclosan is found in over-the-counter drug products such as toothpaste and topical antiseptic products for wounds.
Like many other toxic chemicals in makeup, there are three ways to expose yourself to triclosan: by ingesting it, inhaling it, or putting it on your skin. You can ingest it, for example, when using lipstick or toothpaste that contains the chemical. You could inhale it when you use a body spray containing triclosan. Or you might expose your skin to triclosan when using eyeshadow, blush, mascara, lotion, or deodorant.
Is triclosan safe?
Triclosan is virtually everywhere, and because of its presence in so many everyday products, there are concerns about the potential risks associated with its use over the long term. Studies have found triclosan in the bodies of the majority of the human population, including being detected in breast milk, blood, and urine samples. We know—pretty crazy! A study done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of 2,517 participants detected triclosan in the urine of nearly 75 percent of the study participants.
Some studies have been done that involve the dangers of triclosan. Short-term animal studies—sadly, most toxicology studies still experiment on animals—have shown that exposure to high doses of triclosan is associated with a decrease in the levels of some hormones. Other studies have raised the possibility that exposure to triclosan contributes to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics, giving rise to what are known as “superbugs,” which could have a big impact on the effectiveness of medical treatments such as antibiotics.
In EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database—which lists thousands of everyday chemicals and rates them based on the relative level of exposure—triclosan scores a seven (fair) out of 10, where one is considered best (verified free from EWG’s chemicals of concern) and 10 is worst. For this particular chemical, EWG notes concerns such as endocrine disruption; skin, eye, and lung irritation; and environmental contamination. It is classified as an irritant, meaning the chemical could be harmful to the immune system within a class of health problems that manifest as allergic reactions or an impaired capacity to fight disease and repair damaged tissue in the body.
EWG also notes triclosan is classified as “expected to be toxic or harmful” on the Environment Canada Domestic Domestic Substance List; and that, in addition to immune, hormone, and thyroid concerns, lab animal and cell studies show triclosan can weaken cardiac and skeletal muscle contractions.
There are concerns about the environmental contamination of this chemical, too. When we rinse off makeup or other products that contain triclosan, it gets washed down the drain and into the water supply. Triclosan doesn’t break down easily in the environment, and it has been shown to be toxic to fish and other aquatic life. Even worse, research has shown that only a percentage of triclosan gets removed through water treatment plants. The rest ends up in soil and surface water, affecting nature and wildlife.
Does triclosan cause cancer?
According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics—a project of Breast Cancer Prevention Partners to pressure the cosmetics industry to make safer products—triclosan and triclocarban have proved to be both dangerous and unnecessary. Research is currently looking into the long-term effects of triclosan on the development of skin cancer; however, researchers need further evidence to determine the exact effect of triclosan on this disease.
Is triclosan safe during pregnancy?
All populations are vulnerable to common manmade chemicals like triclosan, especially pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers. This germ-killing chemical is lipophilic, which means that it accumulates in fatty tissues. Studies have found concentrations of triclosan in three out of five human milk samples. Triclosan has also been found in the umbilical cord blood of pregnant women. These results raise concerns for the fetus during vulnerable periods of development.
Is triclosan an endocrine disruptor?
There is evidence that triclosan is an endocrine disruptor, which means it can negatively interfere with the female hormone estrogen and the male hormone androgen, as well as the thyroid systems of the body. Some studies have shown that exposure to high doses of the chemical is associated with a decrease in the levels of some thyroid hormones, and another study showed that triclosan enhanced the expression of androgen- and estrogen-sensitive genes.
Several studies report triclocarban is a unique type of endocrine-disrupting compound that amplifies endocrine activity when paired with naturally occurring hormones in the human body. Research has shown that triclocarban enhances the strength of male and female sex hormones estradiol and testosterone, even though it does not have a direct effect on endocrine activity on its own. Additionally, hormone-sensitive breast cancer cell lines treated with triclocarban demonstrated increased cell growth and multiplication and increased hormone response.
Is Triclosan banned in the US?
Triclosan is only partially banned in the United States, and it is still allowed in cosmetics.
In 2005, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found no evidence that antibacterial washes containing either triclosan or triclocarban were any better than plain soap and water for protecting consumers from bacteria, and in 2013 the FDA announced a draft rulemaking process that would require manufacturers to demonstrate the safety and efficacy of using triclosan or triclocarban in soaps and body washes.
In a 2016 final ruling on the safety and effectiveness of these ingredients, the FDA said that triclosan and 18 other antimicrobial chemicals are not generally recognized as safe and effective (GRAS/GRAE). It then banned the incorporation of these chemicals from household soap products, and the next year it prevented companies from using triclosan in over-the-counter health care antiseptic products without premarket review.
These decisions were made after manufacturers failed to provide the FDA with conclusive proof that triclosan was safe and effective in light of research suggesting concern over hormonal effects and the potential long-term public health risk triclosan use presents.
“Consumers may think antibacterial washes are more effective at preventing the spread of germs, but we have no scientific evidence that they are any better than plain soap and water,” Janet Woodcock, MD, director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said. “In fact, some data suggests that antibacterial ingredients may do more harm than good over the long term.”
This is good news for our hand-washing routines; however, it’s still legal to use triclosan in cosmetics and personal care products, household products, and other consumer items like toys and clothing. As more evidence mounts for triclosan’s and triclocarban’s toxicity, efforts have begun that aim to diminish their inclusion in these consumer products. But, because the US is home to a seriously underregulated beauty industry, it appears that we still have a long way to go.
How to avoid triclosan in cosmetics
The best way to avoid triclosan in cosmetics is to shop at a clean beauty retailer like Kinder Beauty! But more on that in a second.
If you’re a beauty addict who makes a conscious effort to avoid animal ingredients in the products you purchase, you may be wondering if vegan brands also avoid questionable chemicals like triclosan. It would make sense, right?
Unfortunately, toxins like triclosan can be found in any and all makeup, whether it’s vegan or not. Just because a product is labeled vegan or vegan-friendly doesn’t mean it’s free of chemical nasties that could harm your health.
Aside from eliminating animal-based ingredients, vegan cosmetics and personal care products are all lumped into the wider beauty market, and that means not all vegan-friendly companies and brands are equally conscious of the effects of the chemicals they use in their products. Even if it’s certified as vegan, you should still check the ingredients label to ensure you’re comfortable with the ingredients in a product.
In addition to sourcing your vegan makeup from Kinder Beauty, here’s what else animal-loving beauty addicts like you can do to dial down your exposure to triclosan:
- Start by reading labels, and look for clean beauty products that don’t contain ingredients like triclosan. Look out for other common toxins like parabens, phthalates, and formaldehyde, too.
- Avoid products that claim to be “antibacterial,” “odor-fighting,” or germ-killing,” because they likely contain triclosan.
- Look out for triclosan’s toxic cousin, triclocarban, which should also be avoided. Researchers believe this chemical is another harmful hormone disruptor.
- Support smaller brands that are committed to producing chemical-free products. There are many smaller vegan-friendly artisan brands—many of which could be local to you—that make their soaps, lotions, cosmetics, and deodorants from natural ingredients and without the use of chemical additives.
Does Kinder Beauty sell products using Triclosan?
The short answer is no. Kinder Beauty goes out of its way to ensure the vegan makeup products it sources for its monthly beauty boxes and online marketplace are not only vegan and cruelty-free but also free from most common toxins, including triclosan and triclocarban. There is a long list of chemicals that Kinder Beauty avoids under its umbrella of strict clean beauty standards.
Thankfully, finding clean beauty products—which exclude toxic chemicals such as triclosan in makeup and skincare—is becoming easier than ever as consumers and beauty companies discover the potential effects of these not-so-nice ingredients.
And while not all chemicals are bad, it can be difficult to tell the difference between ingredients that are harmful and those that are not. For all the fabulous clean beauty products out there, there are just as many creams, powders, and balms that still include toxic chemicals. Clean beauty aims to provide more visibility into the supply chain of products and the ingredients they use—a trend we should all get behind.
Here at Kinder Beauty, we aim to take the guesswork out of the frustrating research process to find real clean beauty by offering you options that have passed our clean beauty test. That is, before we give a product or brand our stamp of approval, we check each ingredient and research any questionable ones, and we dig into each company’s history to ensure they are actually cruelty-free, vegan, and safe for our skin. If a product doesn’t meet our standards, it doesn’t make it into a Kinder Beauty box.
When it comes to beauty products, it might seem as though the list of ingredients we should avoid grows longer each day.
New science comes out all the time offering evidence-based information about what is and isn’t good for our skin. And if there is the slightest concern with a chemical, we should all take note (Kinder Beauty does, too).
Getting to know your ingredient labels is an important part of becoming a more informed consumer (consider educational resources like this one your cheat sheet on the ingredients to avoid!). Transparency from the companies we support through our purchases is equally relevant.
Remember, knowledge is power, especially given the lack of regulations and oversight on what ingredients are allowed in beauty products in the US. Although triclosan is in hundreds of everyday products, those that are easily absorbed into the skin, like cosmetics, are putting you at greater risk of exposure—and you may be surprised by how many of your everyday products contain such toxins.
As a consumer, when you choose to avoid products that contain animal-based ingredients, cruel animal testing, and these questionable chemicals, you are making better choices for yourself—and the animals—when it comes to purchasing products you use on your skin every day.
Nicole Axworthy is a Toronto-based writer and author of the vegan cookbook DIY Vegan.
The Toxic Twelve Chemicals and Contaminants in Cosmetics | Environmental Working Group
Urinary Concentrations of Triclosan in the U.S. Population: 2003–2004
| National Library of Medicine
Triclosan Resistome from Metagenome Reveals Diverse Enoyl Acyl Carrier Protein Reductases and Selective Enrichment of Triclosan Resistance Genes | National Library of Medicine
Triclosan, a commonly used bactericide found in human milk and in the aquatic environment in Sweden | National Library of Medicine
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