Hundreds of Scientists Call for Tighter Limits on Common Antibacterial Chemical

A strongly worded statement signed by more than 200 health professionals is calling for tighter limits on certain antibacterial chemicals. Mike Mozart/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the chemical triclosan from body wash and hand soaps in September 2016 because of a link to hormone disruption, asthma and other health concerns. But the chemical still persists in the United States as an ingredient in cosmetics, lotions, exercise mats, food storage containers, countertops, school supplies and even some toothpastes. So is it time to wash our hands of antimicrobial chemicals for good?

According to more than 200 international scientists, medical professionals and government officials, the answer is a solid yes. In a statement affirming that common antimicrobial products don't provide the health benefits we once thought, the experts underline that some antibacterial substances damage human health and cause environmental harm. The "Florence Statement on Triclosan and Triclocarban," published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives, urges avoidance of triclosan, triclocarban and other antimicrobial chemicals.


antimicrobial toothpaste, triclosan
A shop assistant removes Colgate toothpaste from the shelves of a Chinese supermarket in 2005. U.S researchers at the time linked triclosan to a chemical reaction that could produce the cancer-causing chloroform gas. The antimicrobrial ingredient persists in many products today.
China Photos/Getty Images

The scientists and medical professionals supporting the statement say evidence shows that antimicrobials should only be used rarely, and only if testing can demonstrate they are safe for specific uses. Currently triclosan and triclocarban are approved for use in more than 2,000 products ranging from toys and kitchen tools to shampoos and toothpastes, according to environmental health organization Environmental Working Group (EWG). The chemicals, say medical professionals and the FDA, are no better at killing bacteria than plain soap and water and using them has given rise to "superbug" bacteria that resist antibiotics.

In addition, chemicals like triclosan and triclocarban build up in the human body and can disrupt hormones, which can lead to a range of problems, including early onset puberty. An earlier study by EWG found triclosan and 15 other chemicals in the blood and urine of teenage girls from eight states and the District of Columbia, pointing to the inclusion of antimicrobial chemicals in cosmetics and skin care products.

"Triclosan may be harming reproduction and development, and may make people more likely to have allergic reactions," says David Andrews, Ph.D., a senior scientist at EWG and co-author of the statement on triclosan and triclocarban, "but it is still found in everything from lotions to cutting boards to blankets."