The world today is inundated with antibacterial products and the word “germophobe” has become part of our daily vocabulary. From antibacterial hand spray to antimicrobial clothing, the crusade against germs has become prevalent, almost unavoidable, in everyday life. A popular example of this is triclosan, a synthetic, broad-spectrum antibacterial chemical used in a wide range of everyday products, including some detergents, deodorants, toothpastes, mouthwashes, plastics, textiles, baby toys and more. As we take a closer look at triclosan, consider the fact that our antibacterial obsession may ultimately cause harm, an idea I discovered after reading this March 2013 Washington Post article.
The presence of triclosan in consumer products exploded during the 1990s, and while this trend has since tapered off, the effect of triclosan in consumer products was never studied extensively. Recent studies in animals and bacteria suggest triclosan may contribute to antibacterial resistance and have carcinogenic properties. The Food & Drug Administration is currently working to update its recommendations for the use of triclosan in consumer products, but until these recommendations are finalized and validated, it may be prudent to avoid triclosan in the products you use at home.
Research performed over the past couple of decades suggests that triclosan may contribute to antimicrobial resistance, meaning bacteria have been shown to become resistant to triclosan after being exposed to it. This antibacterial agent has literally become its own worst enemy. This is a true public health risk as more and more “superbugs” are forming from the basic Darwinian evolution process of natural selection. The more serious concern comes with the occurrence of cross-resistance or co-resistance, meaning resistance to other clinically important antibiotics with similar chemical properties as triclosan. Antibiotics are vital for fighting bacterial infections and acquired resistance should be avoided at all costs.
Although further evidence is needed, there is some concern that triclosan may have an impact on the bacteria in the mouth. Your mouth is an ecosystem of more than 700 species of good and bad bacteria, a naturally occurring balance that, if disrupted, may have adverse affects. This balance of bacteria in the mouth helps to maintain a neutral pH, a condition favorable toward optimal oral health. Like the mouth, your body is host to both good and bad bacteria and is equipped with an immune system to help distinguish one from the other. An unnatural disruption to this process, from chemicals like triclosan, can impact the body’s ability to naturally build resistance to life-threatening disease and infection, in addition to promoting resistance to important antibiotics.
Triclosan has also been shown to decrease the tumor-killing function of human natural kill (NK) cells. NK cells fight tumor cells and virally infected cells by binding to target cells – a process known as lytic function. A study found that NK cells exposed to triclosan for 24 hours showed a decrease of 37% in the ability to bind tumor cells and a decrease in lytic function of greater than 87%. NK cells rely on specific cell surface proteins to bind to cells and these specific proteins were shown to decrease after exposure to triclosan.
Until conclusive evidence is published, I recommend playing it safe and avoiding triclosan in both oral care and everyday consumer products. Have confidence in the fact that your body is resilient and can successfully fight many harmful germs without the help of triclosan or other chemical agents. When it comes to your mouth, remember to stick to these tried and true recommendations to maintain optimal oral health without the concern of creating “superbugs” that our body cannot defend against:
- Brush twice a day for a minimum of two minutes each time
- Floss regularly
- Visit your dental specialist at least two times per year for a professional cleaning
- Drink an abundance of water – in addition to often containing fluoride, a mineral proven to reverse the process of tooth decay, water can help to wash away food particles stuck between the teeth
- Eat a nutrient-rich diet to support the health of your teeth and gums
- Incorporate probiotics to promote the presence of beneficial bacteria
- Reach for alkalinizing foods to reduce the acidity of the mouth (a mouth in the acidic pH zone is favorable toward harmful bacteria)