This common household additive could lead to bowel irritation

Read the labels on your household products because a common antimicrobial additive in cosmetics and soaps is now shown to increase inflammation of the colon and exacerbate colon cancer.

Check the labels on your hand sanitizer, soap and toothpaste for triclosan, a product linked to gut troubles

Frequent hand washing reduces the risk of cold and flu by stopping the spread of germs. (Burst/Pexels)

Triclosan is an additive that was developed in the 1960s to kill microbes by affecting their metabolism and it works decently well for specific applications in hospitals. It's also used as a preservative and has infiltrated a lot of everyday household products.

Toothpaste, shaving cream, 75 per cent of liquid soaps and 29 per cent of bar soaps contain triclosan. It's even in HVAC coils, antimicrobial socks and ice-making equipment. In short, it's everywhere, we are exposed to it all the time and a new study shows it could have damaging effects on your gut.

Previous studies produced conflicting results on whether triclosan is bad for our health. However, this comprehensive new study from the University of Massachusetts Amherst reveals that triclosan is a product that should probably be avoided.

How did the study work?

Using comparable concentration levels found in human blood, the researchers fed mice triclosan and looked at the effect on their gut, specifically at inflammation—including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn's and colitis—and colon cancer.

"We used multiple mouse models to mimic the colonic inflammation in colon cancer," said lead author Haixia Yang. "We found that triclosan can increase the colonic inflammation associated with the colon cancer."

They also found that exposure to triclosan in mice can significantly increase the levels of inflammation by 1.2 to 1.4 times, depending on the mouse model.

What effect does this have on my gut?

Triclosan was designed to kill bacteria and that's the purpose it serves in antimicrobial soaps and toothpaste. However, it doesn't stop killing microbes once it's inside our bodies, which can lead to an imbalance in the gut bacteria called dysbiosis.

The findings suggest triclosan works through negatively affecting the good microbes and initiating inflammation, which can make conditions like Crohn's disease and IBD worse and also promotes cancer.

How can I limit my exposure to triclosan?

Triclosan is a small molecule that can be absorbed by your skin, so even if you use hand soap, shampoos or shaving gel with triclosan in it, a significant amount of triclosan could end up in your blood through dermal absorption. It's also tricky for wastewater treatments to remove it and it's persistent in the environment.

There is no need to use antimicrobial soap, shaving cream or toothpaste with triclosan in it when alternatives do the job just fine, without the damage. (PhotoMIX Ltd./Pexels)

While we aren't quite ready to ban triclosan from all products, as it's still useful in places like hospitals, there is no need to use antimicrobial soap, shaving cream or toothpaste with triclosan in it when alternatives do the job just fine, without the damage.

If you already suffer from an inflamed colon, then it might be best to reduce or eliminate triclosan from all of your products. But don't pour the triclosan-containing products down the sink. Dispose of it in the garbage, which is likely a less pervasive route than in the water supply.


Torah Kachur

Science Columnist

Torah Kachur has been the syndicated science columnist for CBC Radio One since 2013. Torah received her PhD in molecular genetics from the University of Alberta and studied how worm gonads develop. She now teaches at the University of Alberta as a contract lecturer in cell biology and genetics.


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