Over the past several months, your bathroom has become the site of a major controversy. In fact, the controversy has been heating up for a while (Environmental Working Group’s Cosmetic Safety Database dates back to 2004), but recently, stories of dangerous ingredients in common personal care products like soap, toothpaste and lipstick have become even more common in the media. They’re even the subject of a bill in Congress, The Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010. The inadequate regulation and dubious safety of cosmetics spurred Annie Leonard, famous for making The Story of Stuff, to come out with a new video last month, The Story of Cosmetics.
Numerous chemicals that are legally used in personal care products are untested, inadequately tested, or even proven harmful, but few are as widely used and as unnecessary as the endocrine disrupting chemicals triclosan (an ingredient in 75 percent of liquid hand soaps) and triclocarban (most commonly found in deodorant bar soaps). Scientists have recently found a number of new reasons why these chemicals should not be used in consumer products. In late July, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) brought a lawsuit against the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), calling on the FDA to ban triclosan and triclocarban from soaps and body washes.
Together, triclosan and triclocarban are widely used in antibacterial soaps, body washes, deodorants, lip glosses, dog shampoos, shave gels, and even toothpastes. They are found in brands as familiar as Colgate, Dial, Lever 2000, and Vaseline. Although they have been used for several decades for their antibacterial and antifungal properties, studies and even the FDA recognize that they are no more effective at preventing disease than regular soap and water. In other words, they serve two real purposes: allowing companies to market personal care products as “antibacterial,” and contaminating the waste stream (and, ultimately, the environment).
In 2009, the EPA tested 84 sewage sludge samples from around the U.S. and found triclocarban in every sample and triclosan in 79 samples. Research published in 2007 also showed that triclocarban appears more frequently and in higher concentrations downstream of wastewater treatment plants, compared to upstream. That implies that these chemicals are not just entering wastewater treatment plants — they are also exiting the plants in sewage sludge and effluent. Triclocarban is rather persistent and does not break down for over a decade. Triclosan, on the other hand, does break down — into dioxins. And, alarmingly, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) published data in July showing that the level of triclosan in Americans increased, on average, by more than 40 percent in a two-year period (from 2003-’04 to 2005-’06).
So what are the effects of these chemicals we are putting into our environment and even into our own bodies? Setting aside the dioxins — a class of chemicals that are well-documented carcinogens — both triclosan and triclocarban appear to be endocrine disruptors. Scientists say that triclocarban appears unique in that it doesn’t show endocrine activity by itself and instead enhances the expression of other hormones, such as androgens (male hormones like testosterone), estrogens and cortisol. In animal studies, triclosan also affects male and female sex hormones. Additionally, it interferes with thyroid hormone.
Obviously, a major route of exposure to triclosan and triclocarban are through personal care products. Their use in soaps can result in absorption through the skin into the bloodstream, and those who use toothpastes with triclosan are putting the chemical directly into their mouths, where it can remain present in saliva for hours. Additionally, a study published last month found that soybean plants in soil contaminated with triclosan and triclocarban uptake both chemicals into their roots, leaves and beans. This implies that crops fertilized with sewage sludge or irrigated with effluent from wastewater treatment plants, both of which are often contaminated with these chemicals, would result in food contaminated with triclosan and triclocarban. (It should also be noted that, since sewage sludge is sold in composts and fertilizer for home gardeners, proof that plants uptake a harmful chemical should not be the standard used to determine that chemical’s safety in sewage sludge. Home gardeners and their children would be exposed to any chemical in sludge sold commercially as they garden or play in the soil.)
NRDC cites both the recent news from the CDC about the increase in triclosan found in the bodies of Americans (or, more specifically, in their urine) and the study finding that soybeans uptake triclosan and triclocarban into the edible portions of the plant in its press release announcing its lawsuit. NRDC’s senior scientist Dr. Sarah Janssen said, “With no proven benefit and many red flags raised for harmful health impacts, the use of these so-called anti-microbials is an unnecessary and stupid use of toxic chemicals.”
On its Web site, the FDA says that triclosan “is not currently known to be hazardous to humans,” also providing the caveat that “several scientific studies have come out since the last time FDA reviewed this ingredient that merit further review.” Of course, that is not the same as saying that triclosan is definitely safe. The FDA continues by raising the question of whether triclosan “contributes to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics” and concluding that, while triclosan may provide some benefit in toothpaste by preventing gingivitis, there is no other evidence that it provides any other benefits to health. The FDA has no similar page on triclocarban.
Currently, both the FDA and the EPA are taking a fresh look at triclosan, at the urging of Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass. In April, Markey told the Washington Post, “The proliferation of triclosan in everyday consumer products is so enormous, it is literally in almost every type of product — most soaps, toothpaste, cosmetics, clothes and toys. It’s in our drinking water, it’s in our rivers and as a result, it’s in our bodies … I don’t think a lot of additional data has to be collected in order to make the simple decisions about children’s toys and soaps that people use. It clearly is something that creates a danger.”
Markey was also one of three members of Congress to introduce the Safe Cosmetics Act, along with Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois, and Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc. The bill aims to phase out ingredients linked to cancer, birth defects and developmental harm that are currently used in cosmetics, improve labeling requirements for cosmetics, and to establish a list of cosmetic ingredients that are known to be safe. This would be an improvement to cosmetic safety in so many ways, since it’s currently voluntary for a manufacturer to ensure the products it sells don’t contain known carcinogens, neurotoxins, endocrine disruptors, and other harmful chemicals.
In fact, many chemicals used in cosmetics just aren’t tested for safety in the first place. The FDA leaves safety to the industry, which in turn sets voluntary standards for cosmetics companies and tests less than 20 percent of ingredients used in cosmetics for safety. Since 1938, the U.S. has banned only eight ingredients out of the 12,000 used in personal care products. In contrast, the E.U. bans over 1,300. That not only reinforces the fact that Americans are unnecessarily and legally exposed to harmful ingredients in their soaps, shampoos and lotions; it also shows that any company selling products in both the U.S. and Europe already knows how to produce its products free of the over 1,300 ingredients banned in the E.U. Surely it wouldn’t be unreasonable to ask them to uphold the same safety standard for their U.S. market.
Would adopting Europe’s standards or passing the Safe Cosmetics Act remove triclosan and triclocarban from our household products? Perhaps not. The list of chemicals banned in Europe includes heavy metals, phthalates, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and even pharmaceuticals. Some of these chemicals aren’t used in U.S. personal care products anyway. But some are. Take, for example, dibutyl phthalate. You can find that one in any number of Sally Hansen or Cover Girl nail polishes. However, the list of chemicals banned in Europe does not include triclosan or triclocarban. (Nor does it include other chemicals commonly used in personal care products that are potentially harmful, like sodium lauryl sulfate or parabens.) And recall that the FDA, pending its review of triclosan’s safety, continues to allow its use and warn of no human safety hazards (even as it recognizes that “animal studies have shown that triclosan alters hormone regulation.”
In other words, it seems that, while the passage of the Safe Cosmetics Act would improve the safety of personal care products in the U.S., it wouldn’t be a silver bullet. Consumer advocates would need to remain vigilant as the FDA formulates its lists of chemicals banned, restricted, and permitted in cosmetics. And, even if NRDC is successful in its lawsuit to ban triclosan and triclocarban, Americans will still be exposed to triclocarban, triclosan and their breakdown products (including dioxins) for years to come.