Have you ever seen photos of what dirty hands look like under a microscope? It’s not a pretty sight.
If you have any germophobic tendencies, these pictures will make you want to stay in a bubble for the entirety of cold and flu season.
Your best bet for germ protection is to wash your hands frequently and thoroughly. To do so, you will want to use warm water and soap, and wash well for at least 20 seconds.
What’s the best kind of soap to use? A quick scan of the soap aisle at the drug store will leave you more confused than anything. So many choices, so little good information!
I thought for many years that antibacterial soap was the best option for fighting germs. After all, killing any and all bacteria sounds like a good goal. However, after doing some research, I’m not so sure antibacterial soap is all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, it might do more harm than good.
What Is Antibacterial Soap?
Antibacterial soaps (also referred to as antimicrobial or antiseptic soaps) are soaps with added antibacterial agents. Usually an antibacterial soap will have an “Antibacterial” label on the front of the product, as well as a “Drug Facts” label on the back, where the antibacterial ingredients are listed.
These antibacterial ingredients are added with the intention of making the soap better able to kill bacteria. It’s important to remember that bacteria are not the same as viruses. Antibacterial soaps are not effective against common viruses you may come into contact with, including cold and flu viruses.
Antibacterial Soap vs Regular Soap: Which is Better and More Effective?
If you’re just going off of first impressions, it’s understandable why the word “antibacterial” may lead you to think that antibacterial soap is more effective than regular soap.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, antibacterial soaps are no more effective than regular soap. In a 2017 review of antibacterial and antiseptic products, the FDA explained that while millions of Americans use these products, there is no known scientific evidence that antibacterial soap works better than plain soap.
Clinical studies on antibacterial soap would need to demonstrate specifically that the active ingredients in the soaps protect consumers from illness and disease. This quality hasn’t been demonstrated yet, according to the FDA.
Are There Health Issues Associated With Antibacterial Soap?
In their assessment of antibacterial soaps, the FDA warned that not only are antibacterial (or antimicrobial) soaps no more effective than normal soap, but they may be more damaging than helpful. The organization warns that there are worrisome health issues associated with some of the chemicals found in these soaps.
During 2016, the FDA banned 19 chemicals found in over-the-counter antibacterial soaps, including triclosan (an antibacterial and antifungal agent used in liquid soaps) and triclocarban, (used in bar soaps) because of concerns that these chemicals cause health problems such as bacterial resistance and hormonal disruptions.
This is another reason why plain soap may be preferable to the antibacterial variety. Without triclosan or benzalkonium chloride, regular soap won’t end up killing off good bacteria on the skin. Therefore, ingredients like triclosan could make antibiotics less effective in combating new strains of bacteria.
In addition to these concerns, there is evidence that the active ingredients in many antibacterial soaps are dangerous for children. For instance, studies have shown that these chemicals may increase a child’s chance of developing common food allergies such as peanut allergies and hay fever.
The theory is that children need to be exposed to both “good” and “bad” bacteria while their immune system is forming. Antibacterial soap — which kills all the bacteria they encounter — may interfere with that natural process.
Is Antibacterial Soap Bad For The Environment?
There are also environmental concerns when it comes to antibacterial soap, according to the Smithsonian Institution. Tricolsan, the FDA-banned chemical, has been found in sewage lines, as well as in lakes and streams. The chemical was shown to damage the process of photosynthesis among algae. In 2009 concerning levels of triclosan were detected in bottlenose dolphins, as well as in their local environment.
Which Antibacterial Soap Ingredients Did The FDA Ban?
The 2016 FDA ruling did not just ban triclosan. 18 other chemicals were banned from use at that time. Here is the complete list:
- Iodine complex (ammonium ether sulfate and polyoxyethylene sorbitan monolaurate)
- Iodine complex (phosphate ester of alkylaryloxy polyethylene glycol)
- Nonylphenoxypoly (ethyleneoxy) ethanoliodine
- Poloxamer-iodine complex
- Povidone-iodine 5 to 10%
- Undecoylium chloride iodine complex
- Methylbenzethonium chloride
- Phenol (greater than 1.5%)
- Phenol (less than 1.5%) 16
- Secondary amyltricresols
- Sodium oxychlorosene
- Triple dye
At this point, you might be wondering if any antibacterial soap companies are still in business! Well, there are still plenty of antibacterial soaps left on the market; the manufacturers of these products simply use alternative antibacterial agents.
There are three main ingredients currently being used in antibacterial soap: benzalkonium chloride, benzelthonium chloride and chloroxylenol. The FDA has noted that there is a lack of evidence as to the safety and effectiveness of these ingredients.
As of now, the FDA has not banned these ingredients. The agency is, however, asking manufacturers to demonstrate that these ingredients are safe and effective, and it will consider banning them in the future.
Should I Use Hand Sanitizer Instead Of Antibacterial Soap?
The FDA ban on select antibacterial chemicals did not apply to antibacterial soaps used in healthcare settings, dishwashing liquids or hand sanitizer. One might assume, then, that
hand sanitizers are a good alternative to antibacterial soap.
This is true, but only in some cases. The FDA suggested that hand washing is the best way to prevent the spread of germs and bacteria. If you are unable to wash your hands, however, hand sanitizer is an acceptable alternative.
The CDC, which has also recommended hand washing over hand sanitizer, explained that if you do use a hand sanitizer, use one containing at least 60% alcohol. Apply the sanitizer to the entire surface of your hands and fingers, and keep in mind that hand sanitizer will not remove dirt, grease, pesticides or chemicals from your hands.
Hand sanitizer does not kill all viruses or bacteria, either. For example, it doesn’t kill norovirus, the nasty bug that causes stomach viruses.
What Is The Best Soap For Hand Washing?
OK, but we still want to know what the best soap is for hand washing!
Sources such as the FDA and CDC don’t recommend a specific brand or kind of soap, but simply “plain soap.” Liquid soap is generally preferred over bar soap if you are washing your hands in a public setting because the soap is less likely to be contaminated directly by others. Soap with automatic dispensers are even better.
Personally, I like soaps with as few ingredients as possible, and without any added chemicals or dyes. Soaps with no scent at all, or scented with essential oils top my list as well. If the soap has a little moisturizer in it, it will save my hands from getting chapped, especially in the wintertime.
So go ahead and pick any soap that suits your fancy — but do not assume that antibacterial products will yield more desirable results. There’s no proof that antibacterial soaps work any better, while there are plenty of reasons to be wary of them.
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