A recent media release distributed by the Academy of General Dentistry (AGD) touts the antimicrobial, antifungal agent triclosan as the latests “wonder ingredient” in toothpaste:
Toothpaste that contains triclosan/copolymer is better than regular fluoride toothpastes at killing the kinds of bacteria that live in people’s mouths, according to a study published in the January/February 2010 issue of General Dentistry, the peer-reviewed clinical journal of the Academy of General Dentistry (AGD).
“Manufacturers add specific agents to toothpastes to provide added benefits to consumers,” said Joseph J. Zambon, DDS, PhD, one of the study’s authors and a distinguished teaching professor at the University at Buffalo School of Dental Medicine. “The best known agent is fluoride, which was added to toothpaste to prevent cavities. Triclosan added to toothpaste has been shown in a number of clinical studies to inhibit plaque and gingivitis. The copolymer helps to keep triclosan in your mouth for a longer period of time, which boosts its ability to inhibit oral bacteria.”
The triclosan/copolymer toothpaste and two fluoride toothpastes were tested on several different kinds of lab-grown bacteria that mimic germs found in the mouth. The tests were also done on bacteria taken from the mouths of human volunteers.
“Repetitive testing shows that toothpaste with triclosan/copolymer outperformed the fluoride-only toothpastes when it came to inhibiting the growth of bacteria,” Dr. Zambon said.
Actually, that last point should come as no surprise since fluoride’s alleged benefit has nothing to do with inhibiting the growth of bacteria. Rather, the main claim is that fluoride aids remineralization of the teeth, strengthening the enamel and making it more decay-resistant. Any antimicrobial substance would likely have more of an effect on oral bacteria than fluoride.
But we digress…
There are a number of reasons why those with a holistic understanding of health would be less than pleased by the possibility of triclosan becoming as common in toothpaste as fluoride. Julie Deardorff notes some important ones in her recent Chicago Tribune blog post on the story:
- Triclosan is a suspected endocrine disruptor.
- Triclosan cannot be completely removed by wastewater treatment. (Think of all the triclosan that goes down the drain already from antimicrobial soaps and detergents, and how much more there would be if it were as common an ingredient as fluoride in toothpastes.) Once released in the environment, it may be transformed to highly toxic substances through various interactions – e.g., dioxins, via the effects of sunlight on some of triclosan’s chemical components.
Additionally, there is some concern that overuse of substances like triclosan may give rise to “superbugs” in the same way we see antibiotic-resistant microbes developing in the wake of antibiotic overuse in human medicine and factory farming. Similarly, it’s now understood that a world can indeed be too antiseptic in that it can make us less resilient, less able to fight off infection and illness.
The fact of the matter is, in most situations, triclosan just isn’t necessary – in soaps, detergents or any of a host of products treated with triclosan so they can carry the money-making “antimicrobial” claim. For washing your hands, plain soap and water works just fine. And for brushing your teeth, a toothbrush and fluoride-free toothpaste works fine, as well.