What Is Antibacterial Soap? Is It Better Than Regular Soap?

By:    Published: October 29, 2012

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Antibacterial soaps have become very popular and are staples in many hospitals, offices, schools and homes. The theory behind antibacterial soap is the chemicals added will kill more bacteria than regular soap and help protect against various types of germs and illnesses. Although it is important to wash away bacteria, which can lead to illness, are antibacterial soaps better at doing so than regular soap? The answer is probably not. Continue reading below to find out why using regular soap and water is likely as effective as antibacterial soaps.

How Regular Soap Works

The two main components of soap are fat and alkali. In the past, soap may have been made out of animal fat, but today fatty acids, which are processed from fat, are usually used. Fatty acids are combined with sodium hydroxide, which is an alkali. The other ingredients added to modern soap are usually fragrance and additives that help give soap its texture and color.

Soap may seem pretty simple, but it actually works through the chemical combination of an acid and a neutralizing base. As you add water and lather your hands, the ingredients work together to both bind to water and repel it. Grime, such as dirt and bacteria, bind to the soap and are washed away. It is important to understand, soap without additional antibacterial ingredients still remove bacteria from the skin.

What Makes A Soap Antibacterial?

Antibacterial soap had been used for decades in hospitals as a surgical scrub. What classifies soap as antibacterial is the addition of an ingredient to kill bacteria. Most liquid antibacterial soaps on shelves contain triclosan. Triclocarban is also used in antibacterial soaps although less commonly than triclosan.

Triclosan and triclocarban are both considered antimicrobial agents since they can destroy a broad range of microorganisms. Both chemicals work by interfering with the metabolism of the bacteria they come in contact with. They differ from antibacterial chemicals, such as alcohol and chlorine, which evaporate quickly and do not leave behind active residues. Triclosan and triclocarban are the opposite and leave active residues on the skin.

Risks Of Using Antibacterial Soap

Researchers have identified various concerns regarding the antimicrobial agent triclosan found in antibacterial soap. Some of the possible risks include the following:

  • Health concerns: Research revealed triclosan slowed muscle contraction and strength in animal studies. Whether the same health problems can occur in humans is still being researched, but according to the University of California at Davis, there are indications triclosan may be a health concern to humans. Since additional research is needed to prove the health dangers triclosan may have on humans, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not issued a ban on antibacterial soaps. Still consumers should be aware of the possible dangers.
  • Normal bacteria on the skin are killed: In addition to health problems, using antibacterial soap also kills normal bacteria on the skin. Some healthy bacteria are actually beneficial. Normal bacteria found on the skin helps the body fight other types of bacteria, which can make you sick.
  • Resistant strains of bacteria may develop: Over time, if bacteria are repeatedly exposed to an antimicrobial agent, such as triclosan, it may develop a resistance to it, which makes the bacteria more difficult to destroy. This is what has happened with new strains of bacteria being discovered, which are resistant to certain antibiotics.

The Bottom Line

Although more research is needed to prove antibacterial soaps cause harm to humans, most researchers agree they are not necessary. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, antibacterial soap is not needed, and regular soap removes germs just as effectively. The bottom line is frequent hand-washing is essential to prevent infection and illness, but regular soap will do the job just as well as antibacterial soap.

[See: How To Properly Wash Your Hands]

The key is to learn and practice proper hand-washing. Although hand-washing may seem like a no-brainer, many people may not do it properly or often enough. You should wash your hands before preparing or eating food, before touching contact lenses and prior to treating a cut or wound. Also, you should always wash your hands after using the restroom, preparing food, petting an animal and blowing your nose.

[Related: Avoiding Eye Infection From Contact Lenses]

Just as important as how frequently you wash you hands is your technique. Lather hands well using soap and water. According to the Mayo Clinic, you should rub hands together for at least 20 seconds. Remember to clean all areas of the hands including under the fingernails, between fingers and the back of the hands.

Although using an antibacterial soap occasionally is unlikely to cause health problems, the jury is still out on the health risks to humans. With possible dangers and no measureable benefit, using regular soap is likely the better option. Sometimes keeping it simple is best. Using regular soap and washing your hands frequently is one of the best ways you can reduce the spread of germs and stay healthy.

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