Triclosan and an alternative healthy toothpaste for tricky gums

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No, no, my site didn't get hijacked. This is really a post about dental care. More specifically gum care. I've been meaning to write this post for ages, to tell you all about another one of my little TMI secrets... I have tricky gums!

By tricky I don't mean they are sneaking around setting up practical jokes, I mean my gums are temperamental and hard to keep happy. If I don't floss enough, they get all inflamed and bleedy. And for years and years, if I didn't use Colgate Total (ie. a toothpaste containing triclosan) on a daily basis, they got all inflamed and bleedy. So I used it for probably 20 years.

Is triclosan safe?

I thought so until about a year ago, when I started coming across a ton of articles about triclosan being full of potential health hazardous short and long term side effects. 

Researchers also found that people age 18 and under with higher levels of triclosan were more likely to report diagnosis of allergies and hay fever.

- Antibacterial Soaps: Being Too Clean Can Make People Sick, Study Suggests (Science Daily). See also an academic journal article on the same topic here for the scientific folk, and an NPR report on the topic.

Triclosan can pass through skin and is suspected of interfering with hormone function (endocrine disruption)... The European Union classifies triclosan as irritating to the skin and eyes, and as very toxic to aquatic organisms, noting that it may cause long-term adverse effects in the aquatic environment... In the environment, triclosan also reacts to form dioxins, which bioaccumulate and are toxic... The extensive use of triclosan in consumer products may contribute to antibiotic-resistant bacteria... The Canadian Medical Association has called for a ban on antibacterial consumer products, such as those containing triclosan.

- Triclosan (David Suzuki Foundation)

Researchers first tested triclosan's effects on isolated heart muscle cells and skeletal muscle fibers from humans. Normally, electrical stimulation should cause the muscle cells to contract in a process known as "excitation-contraction coupling" (ECC). The process is the basic function that allows muscle movement. When triclosan was introduced, the communication channels were blocked, which would theoretically lead to causing skeletal and cardiac muscle failure.

- Antibacterial agent Triclosan shown to hinder muscle movement in mice, fish (CBS News)

Triclosan is lipophilic, meaning it can accumulate in fatty tissues of the body, and it has been linked to contact dermatitis (skin irritations). Its role in creating a more sterile environment is believed to contribute to the increase in allergies and asthmatic conditions in children; the American Medical Association said in 2000 that “there is little evidence to support the use of antimicrobials in consumer products” and that given the risk of antimicrobial resistance, “it may be prudent to avoid the use of antimicrobial agents in consumer products.” Triclosan may be useful in hospital settings or for people with compromised immune systems, but the Food and Drug Administration has found no health benefits of its use in a household setting, explaining that it is no better than soap and water at reducing germs. In animal testing, triclosan has been found to alter hormone regulation and may have thyroid and estrogen-related health effects.

Triclosan (Physicians for Social Responsibility)

This is obviously some nasty stuff, and for the vast majority of the population, it's completely unnecessary to use! But despite the Canadian Medical Association calling for antibacterial products like those containing triclosan to be banned back in 2009 (Globe and Mail), because of their propensity to contribute to antibiotic resistant bacteria and become carcinogenic in the environment, they are still on the market.

Why is this stuff still being used?

Not only are they on the market, but both the FDA and the Canadian government publicly declare triclosan to be safe for human use.

Triclosan is not known to be hazardous to humans...FDA does not have sufficient safety evidence to recommend changing consumer use of products that contain triclosan at this time. 

- Triclosan: What Consumers Should Know (FDA - August 29, 2012)

The Honourable Peter Kent, Minister of Environment, and the Honourable Leona Aglukkaq, Minister of Health, today announced that the Government of Canada completed its preliminary assessment of triclosan under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), 1999 and the Pest Controls Products Act.

The review concludes that triclosan is not harmful to human health, but in significant amounts can cause harm to the environment...

"This preliminary assessment confirms that Canadians can continue to safely use products such as toothpaste, shampoo and soap containing triclosan," said Minister Aglukkaq. "The assessment re-affirms that the guidance we have in place on maximum levels of triclosan in a variety of products help protect human health."

The health assessment took into account a review of biomonitoring data for Canadians, as well as data from the United States. Human biomonitoring provides an estimate of people's exposure to chemicals. 

The Government also took into consideration concerns that triclosan is linked to antibacterial resistance.  Based on available information, there is no clear link between use of products containing triclosan and antibacterial resistance.

- Canada Concludes Preliminary Assessment of Triclosan (Health Canada - March 30, 2012)

I find it very troubling that the bodies that protect us from damaging ingredients are blatantly denying any danger, when medical associations say otherwise, and even some of the enormous producers of products containing triclosan are voluntarily phasing them out.

 By 2015, [Johnson &Johnson] will phase out [1,4 dioxane and the preservative formaldehyde] and others of concern, including triclosan, phthalates and parabens, as well as fragrance ingredients, which aren't disclosed on product labels.

Johnson & Johnson to phase out potentially harmful chemicals by 2015 (CBS News - August 15, 2012)

Phasing out antibacterial products

Personally, I chose to start avoiding "antibacterial" products ages ago, once I learned what has been known for years: that soap and water (or high concentration alcohol hand sanitizer) are just as effective as antibacterial soap, without any risk, and that any antibacterial products are likely more damaging than helpful.

If you want to make sure you're not exposing yourself to antibacterial products such as those containing triclosan, you'll have to do your research, they're in everything. Toothpaste, soap, deodorant, cosmetics, toys, socks, cutting boards, and even computer keyboards. Seriously. There's a good list to start with here.

My new favourite toothpaste

But wait, what about that toothpaste? Right. Colgate Total. After learning about what long term triclosan exposure could be doing to me and the environment, likely contributing to my myriad of chronic health issues, I knew I needed to get off this stuff. But every time I tried to switch to another toothpaste, my gums would get all sad and irritated and bleedy. It was so disheartening, no matter how much I flossed, rinsed with salt water, etc. they were not having it!

Until... I found this stuff: Desert Essence's Tea Tree Oil and Neem Toothpaste.

Tea Tree Toothpaste

I saw this at Wholefoods one day and thought, hmm... tea tree oil, that's a natural antiseptic, maybe that would help? So I took the stuff home, and after a couple successful weeks, I've never looked back. I threw out two full tubes of Colgate Total just because I was so eager to stop sticking this toxic paste in my mouth. Turns out neem (which I wasn't familiar with) is also a long used antiseptic, more popular in India.

To be fair, tea tree and neem do have their own set of safety concerns (which may make them inappropriate for kids to use, since they aren't as good at avoiding swallowing some of their toothpaste), but for me they are much less concerning at the level that the toothpaste exposes me to than with the triclosan. I'm no medical specialist (aside from what I've gathered in my own life and research), so by all means do your own research and make an educated decision for yourself. And good to note that this particular toothpaste is fluoride-free, so if you live somewhere like Vancouver or Victoria, where the water isn't fluroridated, you may want to consider whether it's worth occasionally using a fluoride containing toothpaste or mouthwash to help protect your teeth from cavities.

I've been using the Desert Essence toothpaste for about six months now, and it's been smooth sailing! I'm extremely happy to have found an alternative that works for my tricky gums, and that is less toxic to both me and the environment.