Does antibacterial soap really work?

Health bodies worldwide acknowledge handwashing as one of the most critical measures in health care to prevent disease transmission. The CDC reports that it is possible to eliminate 30 percent of diarrhea-related diseases and up to 21 percent of respiratory infections by hand washing: all you need is soap and water.

Proper hand washing with soap and clean running water eliminates germs from the hands, protecting people from contracting infections when they touch their mouth , nose, or eyes, and preventing germs from spreading on surfaces such as door handles.

We all know soap hand washing is an impactful way of preserving safety by reducing the possibility of being contaminated with one or another germ. So the use of soap with added antibacterial compounds is therefore a no-brainer, right? Not really! According to the USA at least Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In reality, 19 supposedly antibacterial additives typically used in over-the-counter soaps were banned by the FDA on 2 September 2016. So why did the FDA want to ban such potentially beneficial additives?

To fully understand the FDA’s ruling, we should first understand a little about how soaps clean and disinfect. A quick chemistry refresher will remind us that there are two general types of molecules: polar (things that can be mixed into water, like sugar) and nonpolar (things that cannot be mixed into water, like oil).

Soap molecules are amphipathic, which means they both have polar and non-polar properties. This gives soap the power to dissolve most molecular forms, making washing them off your hands simpler. Soap has a double impact in terms of the disease-causing germs, which are mainly bacteria and viruses: one chemical and one behavioral. Next, the amphipathic essence of soap loosens the bacteria and viruses off your hands for easier washing away. First, when using soap, you prefer to wash your hands for a longer time, as you’re trying to clean it all away. But daily soaps do not automatically kill bacteria and viruses, even as they help you to wash them off your skin.

Antibacterial soaps have almost the same properties as normal soap, but with an extra ingredient added to avoid replicating the bacteria that live on your skin. The hope is that compared to standard soap, this additive would help protect the hand washer against harmful bacteria. It is important to remember that these ingredients do not necessarily impact viruses, so the emphasis is on reducing the risk from bacterial germs. A compound called triclosan is the most popular antibacterial additive used in consumer hand soaps.

A Swiss company called Ciba-Geigy was the first to synthesize and patent triclosan in 1964, and, by 1970, it was in use around the world as a surgical scrub in hospitals. Today, it is estimated that 3 of every 4 antibacterial liquid soaps sold to the typical consumer contains triclosan as the active ingredient.

While it’s a useful part in many consumer goods, such as toothpastes, there are some questions about triclosan use. Studies done in laboratories on cells and animals show that the chemical can influence hormone signals and other biological processes. There is also evidence that, in marine environments, accumulation of triclosan has a harmful effect on species such as algae. Furthermore, it is also important to remember that triclosan has not been specifically associated with adverse health effects in humans to date. On the other hand, some of the other additives recently banned by the FDA, like hexachlorophene, have been directly shown to be harmful to humans, especially with high or repeated exposure. Fortunately, for chemicals like these, the FDA has had limitations in place for years to ensure over-the-counter exposure to consumers is within safe limits.

What’s more, widespread triclosan usage will contribute to the evolution of resistant bacteria. Several laboratory experiments have shown that, according to a study by the University of Michigan School of Public Health, bacteria gained resistance to antibiotics after being exposed to triclosan.

The volume and concentration of triclosan in widely used antibacterial soaps is no more effective at preventing infectious disease and reducing bacterial levels on hands than regular soap, the study also found.

The study’s authors urged the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to further evaluate the advertising claims of antibacterial products, especially considering the lack of additional health benefits associated with the use of triclosan-containing soap over regular soap.

The problem with disease transmission through dirty hands, however, is not only that antibacterial soaps will not do as good a job as they guarantee that the public will not properly wash their hands, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention ( CDC).

Although normal soap consists only of fat, butter, and lye (another term for sodium hydroxide, an alkaline ionic salt), antibacterial soap includes a long list of chemical ingredients, such as triclosan and triclocarban. In 2016, the FDA outlawed these two chemicals along with 19 other ingredients in antibacterial soap, neither of which had proved to be more effective than normal soap.

In short: Stick to regular soap and water. Today, many ‘antibacterial’ handwashes use natural antibacterial ingredients like pine oil or essential oils like lavender and thyme. Some products still list banned chemicals in their ingredients, although many now use benzalkonium chloride as the active ingredient, a common antiseptic that can also cause skin irritation.

Generally, both the FDA and CDC have concluded that the efficacy of antibacterial soap in destroying germs is unproven, and that eliminating germs is no more effective than standard soap. While it might be tempting, don’t listen to the marketing ploys used by ‘antibacterial’ soaps — consistently washing your hands with daily soap and water is still the safest way to kill viruses and bacteria.

Check out my related post: Why you can’t stop touching your face?

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7 thoughts on “Does antibacterial soap really work?

  1. We can never be reminded too many times about how to wash our hands. I used to work for an agency with the CDC. When I was washing my hands in the bathroom, I was horrified to see a colleague hold her hands under the water for three seconds, shake them off, and then dry and leave. That was it! Horrified.

    Liked by 1 person

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