Triclosan is the primary active ingredient in many antibacterial and antifungal products we all use on a regular basis. It is an organic compound that is a biocide, bacteriostatic and is not highly soluble in water. Triclosan is produced by partially oxidizing benzene or benzoic acid using the Raschig or cumene process. It has become popular as an additive to hand soap, face wash, toothpaste, and is used in Microban® products such as utensils, clothing and toys. The compound is also used in higher concentrations (2%) as treatment for people with methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureaus (MRSA).
Triclosan degrades very slowly, and has been found in decades old sludge at the bottom of lakes as well as in sewage. In fact, it is one of the most detected elements in wastewater, and affects algae growth. Because it degrades slowly, and is not highly soluble in water, its effectiveness in hand soap is due to the fact that it stays on the hands and continues to kill bacteria even after they have been rinsed and dried. According to some studies, products that contain triclosan kill up to 99.6% of germs.
While parents, teachers and doctors everywhere surely love the benefits of triclosan due to its effectiveness in killing unwanted germs, it does have its detractors. Critics of antibacterial products, and specifically, triclosan, claim that its overuse will result in the development of resistant bacteria. Current studies do dispute this claim, and there is no definitive evidence the compound is to blame for any resistant bacteria.
Another criticism is that the compound may be carcinogenic. According to studies, it interacts with the chlorine in tap water to produce chloroform gas, which is a carcinogen. This effect is exacerbated by sunlight. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claims it possibly has dioxins, which are carcinogenic. In fact, the Virginia Polytechnic Institute found that when a dishwashing soap was combined with tap water, it did create chlorinated dioxins. Another study shows that triclosan is excreted in human breastmilk, and is an endocrine disruptor in animal subjects.
Currently, triclosan is used in approximately 75% of liquid soap products. Many manufacturers, heeding the criticism of opponents of the compound, are phasing the ingredient out of their products. This may also be due in part to studies that have shown that plain old soap, coupled with proper hand washing techniques, can be just as effective in combating the daily germs you come in contact with.