Does Triclosan Help With Acne?
Triclosan May Be Useful in the Treatment of Acne, But Concerns Remain
The Essential Information
Most people have heard about triclosan because it is included as the active ingredient in "antibacterial" hand soaps. However, recently the FDA banned the sale of triclosan-containing soaps because they were not shown to be any more effective than regular soap. But can it help with acne? It may be able to help in 2 ways:
- Antibacterial action: Acne bacteria is responsible for some of the redness and soreness we see in acne lesions. Triclosan can kill or limit the growth of bacteria.
- Anti-inflammatory action: Acne is at its core an inflammatory disease. Triclosan can help tamp down inflammation in the skin.
So why don't we see it more in acne treatment products? First, because its effectiveness is limited. One study shows that it only reduces acne to a moderate degree. Next, triclosan can lead to resistant strains of bacteria, and resistant bacteria is a major worldwide concern. For these reasons, other medications that more effectively kill bacteria, reduce inflammation, and reduce acne are normally used instead of triclosan.
Properties of Triclosan
Triclosan is a chemical that is able to kill bacteria and slow down its growth. It also inhibits fungus and virus growth. Triclosan is an odorless and tasteless manmade chemical in powder form that dissolves in organic solvents, such as alcohol, but not in water.1
Uses of Triclosan
U.S. manufacturers of soaps started using triclosan in the 1970s and its usage has risen dramatically since then. Triclosan is now added to a wide range of consumer products, including soaps, skin cleansers, deodorants, lotions, creams, toothpastes, and dishwashing liquids. It is used at 0.01 to 0.3% strength. Medical professionals also use triclosan on surgical scrubs, medical devices, and dental-hygiene products to control bacterial growth.1-4
When triclosan is used in oral applications, it is called irgasan and irgacare.
Effectiveness of Triclosan in Treating Acne
Some acne treatment products contain triclosan. Acne is at least partly a bacterial disease since most acne lesions are infected with the a bacteria called P. acnes. One clinical trial investigated whether triclosan helps clear acne or not and found that it did help to reduce acne to a moderate degree.5
Expand to read details of study
Three groups, with a total of 72 male patients aged 18-22 years, were treated with topical acne-creams for eight weeks. The three groups were treated as follows:
- The first group was treated with a control cream containing no antibacterial compound
- The second group was treated with a triclosan cream
- The third group was treated with a triclosan and propylene phenoxetol (another antibacterial compound) cream
The trial was a double-blind study, meaning that neither the patients nor the doctors administering the treatments knew which group was getting which treatment. A double-blind study minimizes the chance of bias influencing the results.
Researchers evaluated the effectiveness of the formulations by:
- Total lesion-count
- Physician evaluation of the inflammation of lesions
- Self-assessment of the treatment
All 3 methods were performed on each patient. The researchers reported that the control formulation had no effect on the non-inflamed lesions but reduced the number of inflamed lesions by 20%. The formulation with triclosan alone reduced non-inflamed lesions by 22% and inflamed lesions by 44%, a significant reduction. The researchers further reported that the cream containing both antibacterial agents did not significantly increase the effectiveness of the treatment containing triclosan alone, suggesting that triclosan is a reasonable addition to skin products used in the management of mild-to-moderate acne.
The sample size of this study was small, so the results are not conclusive. Only 58 of the 72 patients completed the study, but adverse reactions did not cause any of the dropouts. Only two patients who stayed in the study developed reddening of the skin, which cleared with time.
How Triclosan Works to Fight Acne
When used in high concentrations, triclosan kills bacteria. Exactly how it does this is unknown, but it probably irreparably damages the bacterial-cell membrane, which in turn kills the bacteria. When used in low concentrations, triclosan is also bacteriostatic, which means it prevents bacteria from growing.3 Researchers have not determined the exact concentration that changes triclosan from bacteriostatic to bactericidal action, but suffice it to say that bacteria is not happy when triclosan is around.
A series of studies shows that triclosan is anti-inflammatory. This is important since acne is an inflammatory disease. It does this by limiting the skin's ability to produce a substance that leads to inflammation, called prostaglandins.6
Potential Side Effects When Used on the Skin
Manufacturers use triclosan in a wide variety of consumer products. Because of its popularity, researchers have investigated the safety of triclosan in detail.
In a 1975 study reported in the journal, Toxicology, a 0.1% triclosan solution was applied daily to the skin of newborn rhesus monkeys. Rhesus monkeys are the genetically the closest mammal to human beings and are often studied to determine how a medication will affect humans. No evidence of toxicity was found in this study. To study the effect of triclosan on humans, researchers applied consumer products containing it to a patch of skin for 24 hours and in some cases repeated for longer periods. These tests showed that the products did not sensitize the skin, including sensitizing it to light.6
During other studies on humans, the only adverse reactions to triclosan were rare cases of contact dermatitis after application of a 3% triclosan cream. Consumer products do not contain more than 0.3% triclosan, so they are not likely to cause side effects. In addition, triclosan has not been proven to be harmful to developing fetuses, but research in this area is limited, and pregnant women or women who are trying to become pregnant should always speak with their doctor before using any products with active ingredients.1
Although it is shown to be safe when used in individual products, the European Union Scientific Committee on Consumer Products concluded that the combined exposure to triclosan from all cosmetic products may add up to unsafe levels.3 In other words, it might not be a good idea to use multiple products that contain triclosan.
Other Concerns About Triclosan
The overuse or misuse of antibacterial agents, such as triclosan, poses the risk of antibiotic resistance. The commonly used concentrations of triclosan are not enough to kill all bacteria, and the surviving bacteria may develop resistance, which can be passed onto future generations of bacteria. Nine studies conducted between 1993 and 1998 reported low levels of bacterial resistance to triclosan, and in one of these reports, the authors stated their concern that widespread use of triclosan in non-healthcare settings will select for bacteria "that are resistant to our dwindling supply of effective antibiotics."6 Other researchers stated, "(I)t would be wise to restrict the use of triclosan to areas where it has been shown to be effective."7
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determined that there was not enough evidence to prove that over-the-counter antibacterial soap was more effective in preventing illness than plain soap. The FDA requested data from companies that made these products but received little information. For this reason, the FDA no longer will allow hand-washing and body-washing products containing triclosan to be marketed. The rule does not apply to health-care centers, acne products, and other consumer products, such as toothpaste.8
Triclosan is a manmade compound that manufacturers add to many household products in order to make them antibacterial. While unlikely to provide dramatic clearing of acne, it may be useful for the following reasons:
- It inhibits the growth of the bacteria associated with acne
- It reduces inflammation
- One study showed that it was able to help control acne at least to some degree
On the flip side, its widespread use raises the concern of antibiotic resistance. And, since it is less effective than other acne medications at killing bacteria and reducing inflammation, normally other more effective and safe medications are formulated into acne products instead of triclosan.
- Bhargava, H. N. & Leonard, P. A. Triclosan: Applications and safety. Am. J. Infect. Control 24, 209 - 218 (1996).
- CDC. Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals (Fourth Report). (2009).
- Davison, J. & Maillard, J. Opinion on triclosan - Antimicrobial resistance. Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety SCCS (2010).
- Bergfeld, W. F. et al. Final Report Triclosan. Cosmet. Ingred. Rev. (2010).
- Franz, E. The Effectiveness of Topical Antibacterials in Acne : A Double-Blind Clinical Study J. Int. Med. Res. 72 - 77 (1978).
- Jones, R. D., Jampani, H. B., Newman, J. L. & Lee, a S. Triclosan: a review of effectiveness and safety in health care settings. Am. J. Infect. Control 28, 184 - 196 (2000).
- Russell, A. D. Whither triclosan? J. Antimicrob. Chemother. 53, 693 - 695 (2004).
- FDA, U. F. and D. A. Antibacterial Soap ? You Can Skip It - Use Plain Soap and Water. (2016).