Advertising campaigns and a few well-meaning journalists for years persuaded Americans that our homes, offices and bodies are teeming with bacteria and therefore, to be safe, we should use lots of antibacterial chemicals. Now we have growing evidence that triclosan — one of the main antibacterial chemicals incorporated into soaps, cosmetics, cookware, yoga mats and other sporting equipment, mouthwash, and toothpaste — is unsafe as well.
In animal experiments it is implicated in gut inflammation, colon cancer and hormone disruption. There’s only one rational way out of this bind: to think about safety not as a black or white issue, but to consider risk-benefit ratios. After a conversation on this with epidemiologist Sander Greenland of UCLA, I started noticing that news coverage rarely considers risk this way. It’s all focused on whether this or that substance is “safe”.
The FDA did consider both sides of the equation in 2016, when it required companies to phase triclosan out of soaps and body washes, citing safety concerns and lack of evidence for any benefit. Sure, it killed germs. But given that many of us germy people are healthy, exposure to bacteria is not sufficient to make people sick. There must be other factors required — such as weakened immune system or exposure to particularly nasty strains, such as salmonella.
There may be places, especially in hospital settings, where antibacterial products have lifesaving benefits that outweigh the risks, and other places, such as a typical home kitchen, where consumers might be safer with ordinary soap and a little extra caution when handling raw chicken.
While bacteria were once equated with causing illness, it’s now understood there are some dangerous species, many neutral hangers-on, and some beneficial species living in our guts, as well as on our skin. The authors of one recent study have proposed that triclosan may cause some harm by disrupting good bacteria.