Regular brushing and flossing are the cornerstones of good oral health. But what if you learned that your toothpaste was good for your teeth, but bad for your bones? That possibility has been raised by a recent study. The cause of this unprecedented finding may be triclosan, an antibacterial agent added to toothpaste to reduce gum infections and improve oral health. However, it may actually be causing more harm than good.
Rethinking a popular germ killer
Triclosan is an antibacterial agent that’s been around for decades. Not only has it been used in soaps, hand sanitizers, and deodorants, but it’s found its way into cutting boards, credit cards, trash cans, and, yes, toothpaste.
Adding triclosan to all of these consumer products allowed marketers to slap “antibacterial” on the packaging and emphasize this feature of the product. Though unproven, the implication is that products containing triclosan (or other antibacterial agents) might prevent serious infections.
But for many years, studies done in animals or on human cells in the lab have raised concern about whether all this “cleanliness” might have some unintended — and negative — consequences, including:
- promoting the development of resistant bacteria (see my previous post about this)
- interfering with normal hormonal function: in animal studies, triclosan has been linked with abnormal thyroid function and bone mineral density (a measure of bone health and strength)
- more allergic reactions, perhaps because lowering exposure to bacteria may prevent the immune system from developing as it should
- impaired muscle function, as noted in mice, minnows, and human heart cells in the lab
- uncertain environmental impact, since many products containing triclosan wind up in wastewater and, eventually, into bodies of water. And there’s this disturbing observation: it can survive treatment at a sewage facility.
If triclosan is bad for humans, the problems it causes could be widespread: one study found that more than 75% of the public have detectable amounts of triclosan in their urine. While we are still uncertain of the health impacts of this, if any, the FDA has taken action in recent years to curtail its use.
Triclosan’s fall from grace
First, the FDA asked companies using triclosan in their cleaning products to produce research demonstrating that they were more effective than soap and water. In 2016, when no such proof had been offered, triclosan was banned from soaps sold to consumers. The following year, it was banned from healthcare c