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How Your Toothpaste, Soap and Make-Up Can Harm Your Health

Triclosan and triclocarban are widely used in antibacterial soaps, body washes, deodorants, lip glosses, dog shampoos, shave gels and even toothpastes.

Over the past several months, your bathroom has become the site of a major controversy. In fact, the controversy has been heating up for a while (Environmental Working Group's Cosmetic Safety Database dates back to 2004), but recently, stories of dangerous ingredients in common personal care products like soap, toothpaste and lipstick have become even more common in the media. They're even the subject of a bill in Congress, The Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010. The inadequate regulation and dubious safety of cosmetics spurred Annie Leonard, famous for making The Story of Stuff, to come out with a new video last month, The Story of Cosmetics.

Numerous chemicals that are legally used in personal care products are untested, inadequately tested, or even proven harmful, but few are as widely used and as unnecessary as the endocrine disrupting chemicals triclosan (an ingredient in 75 percent of liquid hand soaps) and triclocarban (most commonly found in deodorant bar soaps). Scientists have recently found a number of new reasons why these chemicals should not be used in consumer products. In late July, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) brought a lawsuit against the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), calling on the FDA to ban triclosan and triclocarban from soaps and body washes.

Together, triclosan and triclocarban are widely used in antibacterial soaps, body washes, deodorants, lip glosses, dog shampoos, shave gels, and even toothpastes. They are found in brands as familiar as Colgate, Dial, Lever 2000, and Vaseline. Although they have been used for several decades for their antibacterial and antifungal properties, studies and even the FDA recognize that they are no more effective at preventing disease than regular soap and water. In other words, they serve two real purposes: allowing companies to market personal care products as "antibacterial," and contaminating the waste stream (and, ultimately, the environment).

In 2009, the EPA tested 84 sewage sludge samples from around the U.S. and found triclocarban in every sample and triclosan in 79 samples. Research published in 2007 also showed that triclocarban appears more frequently and in higher concentrations downstream of wastewater treatment plants, compared to upstream. That implies that these chemicals are not just entering wastewater treatment plants -- they are also exiting the plants in sewage sludge and effluent. Triclocarban is rather persistent and does not break down for over a decade. Triclosan, on the other hand, does break down -- into dioxins. And, alarmingly, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) published data in July showing that the level of triclosan in Americans increased, on average, by more than 40 percent in a two-year period (from 2003-'04 to 2005-'06).

So what are the effects of these chemicals we are putting into our environment and even into our own bodies? Setting aside the dioxins -- a class of chemicals that are well-documented carcinogens -- both triclosan and triclocarban appear to be endocrine disruptors. Scientists say that triclocarban appears unique in that it doesn't show endocrine activity by itself and instead enhances the expression of other hormones, such as androgens (male hormones like testosterone), estrogens and cortisol. In animal studies, triclosan also affects male and female sex hormones. Additionally, it interferes with thyroid hormone.

Obviously, a major route of exposure to triclosan and triclocarban are through personal care products. Their use in soaps can result in absorption through the skin into the bloodstream, and those who use toothpastes with triclosan are putting the chemical directly into their mouths, where it can remain present in saliva for hours. Additionally, a study published last month found that soybean plants in soil contaminated with triclosan and triclocarban uptake both chemicals into their roots, leaves and beans. This implies that crops fertilized with sewage sludge or irrigated with effluent from wastewater treatment plants, both of which are often contaminated with these chemicals, would result in food contaminated with triclosan and triclocarban. (It should also be noted that, since sewage sludge is sold in composts and fertilizer for home gardeners, proof that plants uptake a harmful chemical should not be the standard used to determine that chemical's safety in sewage sludge. Home gardeners and their children would be exposed to any chemical in sludge sold commercially as they garden or play in the soil.)

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