Should Your Company Wash Its Hands of Triclosan?

The negative profile of the anti-bacterial chemical triclosan has been rising, so companies should be concerned about whether it will follow in Bisphenol A's (BPA) footsteps and get removed from consumer markets.

Once largely unknown to the public and even to retailers, the BPA in polycarbonate baby and sport bottles is now a poster child example of a substance that can pose a reputational hazard for companies. Triclosan could become, as Yogi Berra might say, a case of "déjà vu all over again."

If your company is using triclosan or its chemical cousin triclocarban in your consumer products, what are you doing to anticipate some "stop order" directive from a major retailer, even before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decide whether to tighten regulations? What's your substitution strategy? What's your exit strategy?soapy hands by JAR

Triclosan's had a good run for many years, driving a strong market for anti-bacterial hand soaps and other products, but at some point the reputational and marketing liabilities of triclosan may outweigh financial benefits.

It's difficult to forecast when a tipping point may come. When regulators revisit the issue they may even conclude triclosan doesn't pose a sufficiently worrisome hazard. But retailers may move more quickly than regulators based on consumer and reputational concerns.

If your company's not examining a "no triclosan" scenario for its consumer products, especially soaps, you may be ill-prepared to be shut out of the market. Conversely, you ought to be considering enlarged market share opportunities for triclosan-free products.

In its April 2010 fact sheet for consumers, FDA stated, "Triclosan is not currently known to be hazardous to humans." However, in the very next sentence FDA adds, "But several scientific studies have come out since the last time FDA reviewed this ingredient that merit further review." FDA goes on to say that triclosan alters hormone regulation in animal studies, and some studies raise the possibility that triclosan contributes to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics.

So how about triclosan's benefits? FDA acknowledges that in some consumer products triclosan is beneficial. FDA adds, however, "At this time, the agency does not have evidence that triclosan in antibacterial soaps and body washes provides any benefit over washing with regular soap and water." This statement should be a wake up call for corporate brand managers marketing soaps and body washes.


The Natural Resources Defense Council is eager for FDA to make a firm decision about triclosan's safety.

In late July 2010, NRDC filed a lawsuit against FDA because the agency has failed to issue a final rule regulating triclosan and triclocarban. According to NRDC, FDA first proposed a rule that would have removed these chemicals from soaps in 1978, but has not finalized it. Even for those accustomed to regulatory delay, a 32-year rule-making process is a mighty long time.

NRDC's lawsuit comes on the heels of Beyond Pesticides, Food and Water Watch, and other NGOs having submitted a petition (pdf) to FDA calling for a ban on nonmedical uses of triclosan, citing the possibility of bacterial resistance to antibacterial substances and antibiotics, along with other concerns. The petition was originally submitted in 2005 and updated in July 2009.Rinsing Hands

EPA also plays a regulatory role and, like FDA, faces an NGO petition urging a ban on triclosan. Triclosan was first registered as a pesticide by EPA in 1969 and was reregistered in 2008. EPA's March 2010 "Triclosan Facts" notes the chemical is used in adhesives, fabrics, vinyl, plastics, textiles, carpeting, and a wide variety of other consumer products. It also has commercial, institutional, and industrial equipment uses.

EPA is updating its assessment, drawing on newly released 2005-2006 human exposure data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Its 2008 assessment was based on 2003-2004 CDC data, but CDC recently released updated data (pdf) for 2005-2006. NRDC characterizes the new data as showing an average 50 percent increase in exposures (as measured in urine samples) "in all age groups, both genders, and all reported ethnicities."

EPA states it will launch another comprehensive review of triclosan beginning in 2013, reexamining both human health and environmental hazards. With respect to environmental impacts, the agency seems mainly concerned about discharges at industrial sites where triclosan is added to plastics and textiles. Some research, discussed here, suggests a link between triclosan and the formation of the potent toxicant dioxin.

Congress is also weighing in. In April 2010, Representative Edward Markey, Chair of the Energy and Environment Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee wrote to 13 major manufacturers urging them to voluntarily stop using triclosan. Markey believes triclosan should be banned in consumer soaps, products intended to come into contact with food, and products marketed to children. Markey's office has not yet released the companies' replies, but the American Cleaning Institute (formerly the Soap and Detergent Association) defends triclosan's safety and laments fear-mongering about the chemical.


In 2010, the European Commission announced (pdf) that triclosan had been formally withdrawn for use as a food contact additive.

This was in the aftermath of Ciba, triclosan's inventor and now a subsidiary of BASF, announcing in 2009 its withdrawing of triclosan for use as a food contact additive. Similarly in 2009, Ciba requested voluntary cancellation (pdf) of triclosan's registration by USEPA for use in plastics and textiles.

Other companies have also removed triclosan from the market.

Soapy hands by Arlington CountyBoots is a product manufacturer and the U.K.'s retail equivalent of CVS and Walgreens. Boots products are sold in both Target and CVS in the U.S. Boots places a very high premium on removing chemicals of concern from its products, periodically updating a "priority substances list" and reporting progress towards its goals. Boots' October 2009 list (pdf) notes triclosan has not been used in new product development since 2005. Boots prohibits triclosan in plastics and textiles and began phasing it out of cosmetic and toiletry products in 2008 with a target completion date of 2010.

Whole Foods Market goes so far as to carry a statement on its corporate blog that triclosan is "one of the five worst environmental pollutants in your beauty products." Regardless of whether you think that comment's over the top or you believe that Whole Foods Market is speaking just to the "greenest" of consumers, keep in mind that Whole Foods Market was also the first company, in early 2006, to pull polycarbonate baby bottles containing BPA from its shelves because of emerging scientific findings.

So consumer-facing companies and brand managers, what's your call? What route do you expect to follow in the next two years with your personal care and food contact products containing triclosan? If you believe it's better to be safe than sorry, you may want to be looking for an exit ramp.

Richard A. Liroff, Ph.D., is founder and director of the Investor Environmental Health Network. IEHN is a collaboration of investment managers that advocates for safer corporate chemicals policies to grow long-term shareholder value and reduce financial and reputational risks to companies. The business case for corporate safer chemicals policies, a list of shareholder resolutions on safer chemicals policies, and a roster of participants can be found on the IEHN website, www.iehn.org

Image CC licensed by Flickr users J>Ro, JAR, SMercury98 and Arlington County.