Illustrated by Julia Sadler.
Hopefully, you've already brushed your teeth today, because those canines could be in for quite a shock: An antibacterial chemical that's been in Colgate's Total toothpaste since 1997 has been linked to a variety of unpleasant health effects.
When Colgate’s approved FDA application for Total was put on the agency’s website earlier this year, it revealed that the safety research (including work examining the chemical triclosan) they had cited wasn’t so clear. Instead, much of the findings were deemed irrelevant or were presented in less-than-truthful ways, and the approval process was clouded with Colgate's lobbying.
In the 17 years since Total was originally approved, the potentially harmful effects of triclosan exposure, especially disruptions to our hormonal system, have become more evident, putting the original research in a clearer light. One study, published in March in Chemical Research in Toxicology, suggests the chemical can encourage the growth of breast-cancer cells in mice by altering an estrogen pathway. And, another study, this one from Toxicological Sciences, concluded that triclosan exposure significantly impacts thyroid hormones in young male rats.
Other research shows triclosan finding its way into the environment could be contributing to the growing issue of antimicrobial resistance. But, a 2008 assessment from the EPA concluded that the use of triclosan in pesticides met statutory safety standards. However, a new assessment incorporating the most recent endocrine research is underway.
Some companies have already shied away from using triclosan. For instance, Johnson & Johnson has stated it will begin phasing out the chemical and searching for a suitable replacement. Procter & Gamble has also stated its intent to remove triclosan from all of its products. In May, Minnesota voted to ban many triclosan-containing products, beginning in January of 2017. And, just this week, a report that is set to be presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society shows detectable levels of triclosan can be found in pregnant women’s urine and umbilical-cord blood samples, suggesting that their fetuses may also be exposed.
Much of this led the FDA to revisit the use of triclosan in hand soaps in December, but so far the agency hasn’t made a move on Total. The agency says triclosan's gingivitis-fighting abilities provide an extra health benefit in Total that many other triclosan-containing products don't have, and the research is still inconclusive when it comes to humans. But, since science has already told us there's no right way to brush your teeth anyways, let's all just at least remember to floss.