Antibacterial soap vs. regular soap: Which offers better protection
- Antibacterial soap is effective against germs, but it isn't any better than regular soap.
- Antibacterial soap may also include harmful chemicals, like triclosan and triclocarban, which have no proven health benefits and were banned by the FDA in 2016.
- You should stick to regular soap - making sure to wash your hands for 20 seconds - if you want to prevent the spread of viruses and bacteria.
Health bodies around the world recognize handwashing as one of the most important health care steps to prevent the spread of disease. The CDC estimates that 30% of diarrhea-related illnesses and up to 21% of respiratory infections can be prevented through handwashing: all you need is soap and water.
Proper handwashing with soap and clean running water removes germs from the hands, which stops people from catching viruses when they touch their mouth, nose, or eyes, and prevents germs being spread on surfaces like door handles.
But which soap should you use? Antibacterial soap may seem like a more effective cleaning solution, but the reality is antibacterial soap is no better than regular soap at killing bacteria or viruses. In fact, it could be much worse for you.
Antibacterial soap isn't better than regular soap
Antibacterial soap contains chemicals that destroy bacteria, says Debbie Malden, a research fellow in population health science at Oxford University. "Antibacterial soap contains additional chemicals not found in regular soap, which can react with the surface of bacterial cells," Malden says.
However, Malden says that doesn't necessarily make it more effective. Both soaps can destroy bacteria and some viruses, although the way that they do it is vastly different.
According to Malden, when regular soap and water are mixed together, one end of the molecule sticks to the fatty envelope of the virus, while the other is attracted to the water. This helps to break apart the outer membrane or virus envelope, ultimately destroying the virus.
Some antibacterial soaps can technically kill germs, but that isn't necessarily better - the fact that the germs have left our hands is enough.
"Antibacterial agents attack some viruses by inhibiting their growth or reacting with their outer membrane," says Malden. However, this process doesn't happen as quickly when compared to regular soap, and Malden says that regular soap still wins out.
Antibacterial soap includes chemicals with harmful side effects
While regular soap is made up of just fat, oil, and lye (another name for sodium hydroxide, an alkaline ionic salt), antibacterial soap includes a long list of chemical ingredients, like triclosan and triclocarban. These two chemicals were banned by the FDA in the US in 2016, along with 19 other ingredients in antibacterial soap, none of which were proven to be more effective than regular soap.
"Although presumed to be safe, some antibacterial soaps contain a number of chemical agents for which the long-term safety is not well understood," says Malden.
Triclosan and triclocarban are still used in a variety of health-care products like soap, mouthwash, toothpaste, and hand sanitizer, despite having no additional health benefits and potentially contributing to bacterial resistance, according to 2018 review in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health.
Moreover, a 2017 report shared the consensus of 200 scientists and medical professionals: there is no evidence that triclosan and triclocarban improve health or prevent disease, and in fact, these chemicals may present a health and environmental risk.
The Bottom Line
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.
Overall, both the FDA and CDC have stated that antibacterial soap's effectiveness at killing germs is unproven, and that it is no more effective than regular soap at removing germs.
Though it may be tempting, don't listen to the marketing ploys used by 'antibacterial' soaps - washing your hands frequently with regular soap and water is still the best way to remove viruses and bacteria.