Should I Buy Soap With Triclosan?

#EcoAdvice from our expert

Dear Dr. Donley,

I heard that triclosan, an antimicrobial agent, has been banned from soap products. How will we germophobes cope?


Lather Is the Best Medicine

Dear Menace 2 Microbes,

As it turns out, triclosan — the antimicrobial agent that spawned all of the “kills 99.9 percent of germs” claims on soap products — really doesn’t provide any extra benefit above and beyond just regular soap. Found in about 75 percent of liquid soaps, triclosan and other antimicrobials have been very effective marketing tools for the personal hygiene industry, even though there was never any evidence that they provide added protection against pathogens. Although the FDA proposed eliminating triclosan from soaps back in 1978, the agency finally got its second wind 38 years later and just recently made the ban final.

And it’s a good thing it finally took action, because triclosan is an endocrine disruptor that can affect thyroid function, which regulates metabolism, digestion and brain development. Furthermore, triclosan can react with free chlorine to form chloroform, a carcinogen that can damage DNA. Since most tap water is chlorinated and wastewater is always chlorinated before it’s released back into rivers and streams, constantly washing triclosan down the sink can have major unintended consequences. And disturbingly, a simple reaction with sunlight will turn chlorinated triclosan into dioxins. An analysis of sediment in one Minnesota lake found that nearly one-third of the dioxins present were formed from triclosan.

Although a ban in soaps is nice, triclosan — and other antimicrobials, for that matter — permeate almost every synthetic surface around us. From cutting boards to mattress pads to deodorant, antimicrobials are often added for the sole purpose of protecting the product from deterioration or discoloration, not protecting people from disease.

So, for everyday use, go for good old-fashioned soap and natural products that don’t use these extra chemicals. Let’s leave the antimicrobials where they belong: in the hospital.

Stay wild,

Dr. Donley

Dr. Nathan Donley is a scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity who answers questions about how environmental toxins affect people, wildlife and the environment. Send him your questions at

Read the previous Ask Dr. Donley installment Will TSCA Reform Change Anything?”