What is happening in the world of consumer products and why should we be worried?

For most of our lives manufacturers have been promoting the virtues of anti-bacterial products. They tell us that the ingredients kill 99.9% of bacteria and convince us that this is a good thing. Hand wash, shower gel, toothpaste, mouthwash, deodorant… the list of consumer products that contain anti-bacterial agents is a long one. But if anti-bacterial products are so prolific and seemingly necessary, why the sudden backlash?

On Friday 2 September 2016, The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned 19 ingredients from anti-bacterial consumer products. The most common of these include the ingredients Triclosan and Triclocarban.

However, this is not a new debate; the FDA first restricted some anti-bacterial ingredients in 2013 following claims about the negative effects of these ingredients. In 2015, Unilever in the UK stopped manufacturing skin care and cleansing products containing Triclosan. They  also plan to stop using Triclosan and Triclocarban altogether by the end of 2017.

So, what is so bad about these ingredients? If they kill bad bacteria and make our homes clean and safe surely that’s a good thing? The main arguments are:

1) they can cause antibiotic resistance

2) they cause cell damage in humans, and

3) they kill the good bacteria that is essential for our gut and overall health.

Many studies have been undertaken on the matter. In 2015, the US National Center for Biotechnology Information concluded that “Triclosan is often associated with multidrug resistance”.  It is understood that Triclosan works in similar ways to antibiotics, and when exposed to Triclosan, bacteria can develop genetic resistance. Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health today, according to the World Health Organisation.

Studies on the physical effects of Triclosan have seen startling findings. The US National Center for Biotechnology Information found that it induces cell damage that causes cell contents to physically leak out of the membrane. Another study (conducted by researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine), found that exposure to Triclosan caused liver fibrosis and cancer in laboratory mice through ways that are also relevant in humans.

And then there is the effect on our good bacteria. Our bodies are full of bacteria. In fact, it is estimated that there are around 100 trillion bacterial cells in the human microbiome which are vital to our health. The use of these products not only kills bad bacteria, but also kills essential good bacteria which can have an effect on both our physical and mental health.

So what can we do to avoid these effects? Every day we expose ourselves to these ingredients and their effect on our bodies is highly questionable. Unfortunately, there is no ban in the UK as yet, so for now we can only do our best to avoid using products that contain Triclosan. Will this mean that we will all become ill because the bad bacteria won’t be killed? Well actually no – the deputy director of the FDA said in 2013 that there is no evidence that these ingredients protect us from illness over simple soap and water.