Of the more than 84,000 chemicals sold in the U.S., few are attracting more scrutiny than triclosan. Used for decades in handsoaps, it is now part of almost 200 products including rugs and pet-food dispensers. Companies including Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble Co. have vowed to remove it from their lineups. In May, Avon Products Inc. announced its plans to go triclosan-free.
Those moves are coming in part as consumers, armed with toxicity ranking systems such as the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Database, have turned away from chemicals including Bisphenol A and phthalates, even in the absence of firm scientific or regulatory conclusions.
Wariness is mounting as factors from environment to diet are blamed for a global rise in endocrine-related diseases. Breast, ovarian, prostate and testicular cancer rates have increased over the past 40 to 50 years, according to a 2012 report from the World Health Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme. A rise in preterm and low birthweight babies, early breast development in girls and undescended testicles in boys may be linked to endocrine-disrupting chemicals, the report says.
Zoeller, the endocrine specialist, said that while an estimated 800 to 1,000 chemicals are believed to disrupt the endocrine system, triclosan is one of about 10 to which people are regularly exposed. "We may not have to change very much to have a big impact," he said.
Total, the No. 3 selling brand in the U.S., lost 2 percent of its market share last year, with $189.8 million in sales for the year that ended on Jan. 26, according to market research firm Mintel Group Ltd. Colgate's Tom's of Maine line grew 14 percent, to $38.9 million, suggesting shoppers are gravitating toward more natural options, the report said.
Procter & Gamble, which makes Crest 3D White and Crest Pro- Health — the top two U.S. toothpastes according to Mintel — has sought to capitalize. A Google search for "triclosan" and "toothpaste" brings up an advertisement linked to a Procter & Gamble site touting Crest products as "100% triclosan free."
P&G's oral-care products have been triclosan-free in the U.S. and several other markets "for a number of years," said Kristopher Parlett, a spokesman for the Cincinnati-based company. P&G doesn't produce or market triclosan-containing oral care products anywhere, he added.
GlaxoSmithKline PLC, which once had triclosan in some Aquafresh and Sensodyne toothpastes, has reformulated all of its oral care products that previously contained it, said spokeswoman Joanmarie Goddard. She couldn't say what year they had been reformulated or whether triclosan versions had been sold in the U.S. The decision was a response to consumer concern that triclosan across a range of products ``may have a negative environmental impact in the future,'' she said.
From its beginnings as an ingredient in surgical hand scrubs, triclosan — also identified as 5-Chloro-2-(2,4- dichlorophenoxy)phenol — has grown to a $100 million a year chemical globally, according to statistics from the Kline Group. BASF, based in Ludwigshafen, Germany, sells it under the trade names Irgasan and Irgacare. India-based Kumar Organic Products Ltd. and Vivimed Labs Ltd. also make it.
BASF says that 40 years of global studies and publications prove triclosan's efficacy in oral care and cosmetic products, as well as in hand disinfectants and other health-care applications, according to Thomas Nonnast, a spokesman. Klaus Nussbaum, a spokesman for Kumar, said studies have established triclosan's safety. Vivimed didn't respond to requests for comment.
While company-sponsored safety tests on triclosan that would become part of Colgate's FDA application for Total began as early as 1968, U.S. agencies have yet to comprehensively review it for other uses.
In 1974, the FDA proposed issuing a so-called monograph that would determine whether antibacterial ingredients such as triclosan were considered safe and effective for hand soaps. Two years later, the U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, which aimed to comprehensively regulate chemicals, grandfathered in existing substances with no safety testing.
The law gave the EPA — which oversees triclosan's use in durable goods including fabrics and sealants — the power to restrict or test substances. It excluded food, drugs and cosmetics, which fall under the FDA's mandate. The FDA, four decades after its first promise, has yet to issue a ruling on whether triclosan is safe or effective in soaps.
In the meantime, triclosan made its way into toothpaste.
Colgate spent 10 years and $38 million developing Colgate Total, according to Mintel. Introduced in 1992, it was marketed in almost 100 countries before gaining U.S. approval, according to transcripts of FDA meetings.
Colgate applied to the U.S. four times starting in 1992, according to FDA records, before gaining the FDA's blessing on July 11, 1997. In a statement at the time, Colgate called Total "the most significant advancement in home dental care since the introduction of fluoride."
In the early 2000's, Caren Helbing, a professor at the University of Victoria in Canada, noticed the SARS outbreak in China had led to a germ-killing frenzy. Seeing triclosan listed as an active ingredient in many antibacterial products, she looked up its chemical structure. It was similar to both thyroid hormones and to polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, she said. Such a structure, she and other scientists have said, allow the chemicals to become active on hormone receptors.
Helbing, who has a Ph.D. in biochemistry and microbiology, found that tadpoles exposed to triclosan developed into smaller froglets and had malformed legs — results that she and other scientists published in the peer-reviewed Aquatic Toxicology journal in 2006.
Other studies found no such links between the chemical and hormone function. A 2011 paper published in Science of the Total Environment found that over four years, the use of triclosan toothpaste had no detectable effect on thyroid function in humans. Three of that study's five authors received a grant from Colgate. One, Greg Seymour, a professor at the School of Medicine at the University of Queensland, said Colgate requested the analysis of thyroid hormones after it granted them money for a separate study on gingivitis. Colgate had no input on data collection or analysis, he said.
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