Banning Triclosan will protect us from antibiotic resistance

Monday, June 11, 2018 - 14:37


We live in a world that is obsessed with being sterile.

Many people believe that the only way to ensure our health is by clearing ourselves of every microbe on and around us.

But what if this is just making things worse?


The most commonly used antibacterial compounds in commercial products in Canada are triclosan and similar chemicals.

Triclosan can be found in almost 2000 different commercial products. To give you an idea of its prevalence, about three-quarters of liquid soaps and around one quarter of bar soaps contain triclosan.



While these chemicals are mostly found in cleansing products like soaps, toothpaste, and body washes, they can also be found in children’s toys, office supplies, cosmetics, shopping carts, clothing, mattresses, and kitchen utensils.

Triclosan was first introduced in the 1970s in hospital settings to reduce microbial loads on various health care surfaces. But manufacturers soon saw a domestic market for it. The present-day multi-billion dollar antibacterial product industry benefits from triclosan being extremely stable, even at high temperatures, as well as being cheap to make.

Studies have shown the notable presence of triclosan in the urine of Americans, which eventually caught the eye of the United States government.

In 2016 the US Food and Drug Administration banned the use of triclosan and similar chemicals in soaps after concluding that antibacterial soaps were not any more effective in cleaning than regular soaps. However, triclosan can still be found in other commercial products in the US.

Health Canada hasn’t taken any action against triclosan. They claim that it isn’t directly harmful to human health, but that it can be damaging to the environment in large amounts. And so triclosan still remains in Canadian soaps.

But the threat of triclosan isn’t in its direct effects to human health, rather its main side effect.



When people use products containing triclosan, it can end up being washed off into the environment, collecting in water and soil. Once in these chemicals are in such environments, they can pressure bacteria to become resistant to them.

Bacteria resistant to triclosan and similar chemicals show reduced susceptibility not only to those compounds found in commercial soaps, but to clinically used antibiotics as well. This is because the most common molecular basis of resistance to triclosan and our clinical drugs is the same.

Bacteria use proteins called efflux pumps to spew antibiotic chemicals out of their cells, kind of like how the body vomits out poison or one too many drinks. While these efflux pumps are initially used to clear triclosan, they can be used later on to also pump out clinically-relevant antibiotics.

Once antibiotic resistance is selected for in these bacteria, these genes, and the microbes that contain them, can result in downstream antibiotic-resistant infections in humans.

Our laboratory studied the effect of triclosan on a bacterium called Acinetobacter baumannii, a notorious and infamous disease-causing organism that is resistant to every single class of antibiotics in use today.

We found that bacteria under pressure from triclosan treatment displayed resistance to almost all of the antibiotics that are currently used to treat A. baumannii infections in hospitals, due to the actions of an efflux pump.



When it comes to regulating these antibacterial compounds, public policy should be driven by the scientific evidence. Otherwise, the threat of antibiotic resistance will grow even bigger.

The Government of Canada can start by taking a careful look at the ruling by the FDA that banned triclosan in soaps. This decision resulted from an extensive scientific literature review, and Health Canada should follow suit.

While a ban of triclosan in soaps would reduce the problem, it is crucial right now that we educate the public about the effects of triclosan and increase awareness of its dangers. This way, consumers can make informed choices to ensure their health and the health of us all.

We should all stop using triclosan-containing products in our everyday lives. The evidence is quite clear that in domestic settings, those products are not any more effective than soaps that don’t contain triclosan.

That’s what the evidence points to, and it will keep us safer too.

Ayush Kumar is an Associate Professor in the Departments of Microbiology and Medical Microbiology at University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.


Jeremiah Yarmie

Communications and Outreach Intern

Jeremiah is a science communicator from Winnipeg in Treaty 1 Territory who is fascinated by all of the different ways science intersects with our everyday lives.