Does Antibacterial Soap Really Work?

antibacterial soap

Nearly all of the dishwashing and hand soaps sold on store shelves these days tout their antibacterial qualities. But is that a true advantage or simply a marketing ploy?

The FDA Has Spoken

In late 2013, the Federal Drug Administration announced that manufacturers of antibacterial soap must prove that it’s both safe and more effective than simply washing with regular soap and water, or they can no longer sell it within the next few years. But other groups, including the American Medical Association, have already made their pronouncement: antibacterial soaps are no more effective than regular soap and water and may, indeed, be more harmful.

Here’s why.

  1. Most antibacterial soaps contain the antibacterial compound triclosan, which was originally confined to hospital settings when it was introduced in 1972. Research has shown that triclosan needs to be left on your skin for two minutes to work. Most of us just aren’t that patient when washing our hands!
  2. Some scientists say that heavy use of antibacterial soaps may mean that bacteria with a random mutation will be able to survive exposure to triclosan. This resistant subset can then begin to proliferate and your antibacterial soap will be helpless against it.
  3. Antibacterial soaps may lead to other health problems. Some studies have indicated that children with prolonged exposure to triclosan have a higher chance of developing allergies. Other mounting scientific evidence shows impacts to the thyroid hormone, skin irritation, and endocrine disruption.
  4. Some bacteria actually benefit us. Our bodies contain a ton of helpful bacteria (probiotics). These so-called “good” bacteria do things such as help us digest our food, prevent halitosis (bad breath) and help our bodies defend against truly harmful bacteria.
  5. Many common diseases are viral and are thus not prevented by antibacterial products. Viruses, not bacteria, cause the majority of seasonal colds and flus.

What’s a Mom to Do?

So if the evidence to date is showing that antibacterial soaps do not work the miracles they claim, what should you do?

One option is to use a non-antibiotic hand sanitizer, like Purell, which kills both bacteria and viruses with a blend of 62% ethyl alcohol that works in as little as 15 seconds. Many people find that hand sanitizers are quite handy when soap and water might not be easily available. For example, keeping a bottle of hand sanitizer in your car can be a lifesaver when stopping for a fast food burger and fries with your kids.

But for your day-to-day life, most experts recommend just going back to basics. Simply wash your hands with good old soap and water. While a hand sanitizer kills bacteria and viruses, it doesn’t remove dirt. To do your best clean up job, wash your hands for about 30 seconds in any temperature water; it doesn’t need to be hot. Pay special attention to your fingertips where germs can easily hide. And, of course, be sure to ingrain these good habits into your kids early on!

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Do you uses antibacterial soap?