Is Triclosan in Colgate Total Safe?

The use of triclosan is Colgate Total is controversial. Here, I break down the latest research and explain why I think triclosan is a health risk you shouldn't take.

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Hi, I’m Dr. B, practicing functional dentist for 35 years. I graduated from the Dugoni School of Dentistry in San Francisco, CA in 1987 and am a member of the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine (AADSM), Academy of General Dentistry (Chicago, IL), American Academy for Oral Systemic Health (AAOSH), and Dental Board of California. I'm on a mission to empower people everywhere with the same evidence-based, easy-to-understand dental health advice that my patients get. Learn more about Dr. B

Q: Is triclosan in toothpaste safe? I use Colgate Total and am trying to separate the hype from fact. I thought the FDA was supposed to review the safety of triclosan, but that was a while ago. Is there any consensus on whether or not we should avoid triclosan?

A: I won’t use triclosan or recommend it. Its potential upside in improving oral health is at best, minimal. At worst, triclosan could alter hormone functioning and upset the delicate balance of bacteria in your mouth that keep it healthy.

Colgate refuses to remove triclosan from their toothpaste, saying it is “better than other toothpastes in reducing the germs that can cause gum disease” and therefore, critical to public health.

Triclosan and Oral Health

If “clean” is good, then “cleaner” must be better, right? No, and that’s due to the delicate balance of flora in the mouth.

Your mouth contains an ecosystem of more than 700 species of “good” and “bad” bacteria that live in a delicate balance.

Throw in a bacteria “nuke” like triclosan, and you disrupt this delicate balance through an indiscriminate kill of both good and bad bacteria.

This disruption and imbalance of the flora in your mouth can cause bad breath and dry mouth, as well as impact your body’s natural ability to build resistance to disease and infection.

Colgate maintains that these risks are worth it, citing more than 80 clinical studies with 19,000 people that prove that triclosan in Colgate Total is safe.

The problem is that these studies were company-backed, not bipartisan, and did not take into account the long-term effects of all this triclosan exposure.

How Triclosan Messes with Hormone Functioning

Animal testing has raised red flags about the safety of triclosan.

A few of the harrowing effects of triclosan demonstrated in animal studies:

  • Weakened heart muscle function
  • Altered shape of sperm
  • Bone deformation

It’s important to be aware that in animal tests like these, the dosages of chemicals used can often be outrageously high and nothing close to the amounts humans are exposed to. But nonetheless, with little to no upside to using triclosan, I don’t see how the risk is worth it. Not to mention, why would we want to flush this stuff down the sink and let it affect ocean life?

Triclosan Regulation by the FDA

triclosan toothpaste safeThe use of triclosan is currently being questioned in recently surfaced documents that show that when the FDA approved the use of triclosan in the Colgate Total formula, they used research paid for by Colgate.

Recently, Crest removed triclosan from all its toothpastes due to safety concerns. The only major brand left that continues to use triclosan in its formula is Colgate Total.

Thanks to the animal studies which have raised red flags about triclosan’s impact on hormone functioning, the FDA as well as several other organizations have moved to ban it from soaps only.

But not toothpaste.

So why is a pesticide that isn’t safe for our hands still in a product that goes into our mouths?

The FDA has asked manufacturers to prove that a chemical like triclosan is more effective than regular oral hygiene in gingivitis prevention.

The FDA has reasoned that triclosan should be removed from soaps since it hasn’t been proven to be more effective than washing your hands with water and regular soap. (The rubbing action of hands and the soap that binds to bacteria is actually what’s effective in removing bacteria from hands — so triclosan is effectively useless since it kills the bacteria after it’s off your hands and going down the sink.)

But triclosan wasn’t found superior to regular brushing and flossing during its FDA approval process in 1997.

The problem with the approval process in 1997 is that new documents released earlier this year, after a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, show that the FDA relied on company-backed science to reach its conclusion about the safety of triclosan.

The documents also show that the FDA had concerns about triclosan as an endocrine disrupter as well as concerns about the thoroughness of cancer studies.

This means that instead of having independent, third-party researchers determine the effectiveness and safety of a given product, the FDA often accepts research studies funded by the company that is trying to seek approval.

Bottom line — the FDA is currently investigating to see if they did their due diligence back when triclosan was originally approved.

Not a great indicator of triclosan’s safety!

What are the risks of triclosan in toothpaste?

We don’t know yet. More research, especially on long term effects of triclosan, is needed. Not even the FDA has issued a comprehensive ruling on triclosan’s effectiveness and safety. The FDA says it will issue a ruling on triclosan in 2016.

Meanwhile, there are millions of people using toothpaste with triclosan in it.

But what exactly are we waiting for?

The Problem with the Triclosan Debate

Is even a potential risk worth it, when the health benefits seem to be small-to-none? Absolutely not. And that’s what is missing from the triclosan debate.

We stand nothing to gain and a lot to lose. [Click to tweet this]

The kind of logic that says that triclosan isn’t harmful because ill effects haven’t been reported in humans yet just doesn’t cut it for me.

My philosophy is to work the other way around — something, especially a chemical, should be proven 100% safe before it’s added — and only if the benefit to my health is great.

Usually findings like those in the recent animal studies mean further testing is needed before something is approved for humans — but the FDA doesn’t operate that way. They’re waiting for conclusive, 100% definitive evidence that triclosan is not safe before taking action. Rather than brush and floss, we’d rather have a chemical do the magic.

My Recommendation

Until conclusive evidence is published, I’m playing it safe and avoiding triclosan in both oral care and everyday consumer products — and I recommend you do the same.

If you’re afraid of missing out on triclosan’s supposed antibacterial power, don’t be — brushing and flossing twice a day will still remove bacteria effectively enough to prevent gingivitis and gum disease.

There are plenty of triclosan-free options available — just check the ingredient list on the label.

And while you’re at it — switching to a triclosan-free toothpaste is a good start, but if you’re interested in eliminating triclosan from the rest of your personal care products, see this list provided by the US Department of Health & Human Services of products with triclosan.

Have confidence in the fact that your body is resilient and can successfully fight many harmful germs without the help of triclosan or other chemical agents.

Your flossing and brushing technique will be far better predictors of your long term oral and overall health.

You don’t need chemicals to prevent gingivitis if you’re practicing proper oral hygiene habits.

How to Prevent Cavities and Gingivitis Without Chemicals

  • Throw away your Colgate Total. 
  • Choose a triclosan-free brand of toothpaste. While you’re at it, consider making it SLS-free and fluoride-free as well.
  • Brush and floss after meals or at least twice a day using proper technique. This is tried-and-true gingivitis prevention without all the potential downsides of triclosan exposure.
  • Visit your dentist at least two times per year for a professional cleaning. These are critical because they remove tartar and plaque which cannot be removed by you flossing and brushing yourself at home.
  • Drink lots of water. Water can help wash away food particles stuck in between the teeth and prevent plaque buildup in between brushing and flossing sessions.
  • Consider taking probiotics to promote the presence of beneficial bacteria. The healthy ratio of good to bad bacteria that is critical to oral health could use a boost from probiotics.
  • Reach for alkalinizing foods to reduce the acidity of the mouth. A mouth in the acidic pH zone is favorable toward harmful bacteria, so alkalinizing foods like raw vegetables are great to balance out the acids.
  • Get the word out. Colgate Total is a top-selling toothpaste so it’s likely that your friends and family are using it. Share or email this article. Also, let Colgate know that triclosan in toothpaste isn’t necessary. Tweet @ColgateSmile with #removetriclosan.
  • Switch to a natural toothpaste. The point of toothpaste isn’t to prevent cavities; it’s to help the toothbrush remove the outer layer that builds up on teeth during the day. Toothpaste isn’t what improves oral health; flossing and brushing are.

Mark Burhenne DDS

Learn More: Fluoride Pros and Cons: Is Fluoride Safe?