Each week, Health and Beauty Expert Sue Chung will discuss skin health topics suggested by members of the HealthCentral community. To ask Sue a question, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below.
Reader's Question: I use an acne face cleanser with the anti-bacterial ingredient Triclosan. Then I noticed that this ingredient is also in anti-bacterial hand soaps. Is this harmful for my face? Should I switch products?
Sue's Response: Triclosan is an anti-bacterial ingredient that can be found not only in anti-acne cleansers and hand soaps, but also a wider variety of home care products. It's used in a smorgasbord of common household items including mouthwash, toothpaste, deodorants, first aid creams, and even kitchenware. Clearasil and pHisoderm use it in some of their face cleansers and Bath and Body Works features the ingredient in most of its anti-bacterial hand soap line.
Despite its prevalence as a very effective anti-bacterial agent, there's a growing group of health care advocates who are urging consumers to avoid this ingredient.
The most common reason why so many people are up in arms against triclosan is the issue of bacterial resistance. Some groups claim that the persistent use of anti-bacterial ingredients like triclosan can actually increase the proliferation of bacteria. Think of it as bacterial evolution: If the anti-bacterial agent does not kill all the bacteria, the surviving bacteria are the ones that spread and become more common. The end effect is that antibiotic-resistant bacteria flourish.
Other groups claim that the fear of "super" bacteria arising from the overuse of triclosan is creating unnecessary alarm. In fact, chemical company Ciba, who manufactures triclosan, emphasizes that it is not an anti-biotic, but an antimicrobial agent. The company insists that many hospitals use triclosan in their soaps in order to fight the spread of bacterial infection and these hospitals do not experience a higher incidence of bacterial resistance.
Another issue of contention is the effect triclosan has on our water supply. Over 95% of triclosan products are used and then washed down the drain. Water treatment plants are able to remove some of the triclosan in water and Ciba states that triclosan is biodegradable. Unfortunately, triclosan is toxic to algae and may negatively affect the ecosystem before it has a chance to break down.
So do the benefits of using triclosan outweigh the negative effects? It depends. If you happen to use a facial cleanser with triclosan and finds that it works well for you, there is no evidence to prove beyond a doubt that triclosan is harmful. If you are feeling wary of continuing to use the ingredient, most doctors say you won't miss out.
Soap kills germs, regardless of triclosan, according to the National Institutes of Health. During a 2002 study, the NIH concluded that regular soap users do not show more bacteria than those who use soaps with triclosan.
In addition, triclosan is not the most effective anti-bacterial ingredient when it comes to fighting acne. Benzoyl peroxide is a much more effective ingredient against acne. Its track record conclusively proves its ability to fight acne-causing bacteria without the risk of causing bacterial resistance. And while benzoyl peroxide products usually come in spot treatment form, triclosan most often shows up in cleansers. Since a cleanser only stays on your skin briefly before you wash it off, the benefits are minimal.