ScienceSkepticism

Antibacterial Soap is a Scam

Antibacterial soap does not work any better than regular soap at killing germs like the coronavirus.

“Wash your hands with soap and water.”

That’s the refrain we’ve been hearing more than any other in these times of global pandemic. Along with that refrain comes information about the proper way to wash our hands and how long and how often, but nowhere in that advice does it address what type of soap you should be using.

Not all soaps are the same and the biggest difference between soaps is that some are antibacterial soaps and some are not. It might be temping to assume that antibacterial soaps will be better at destroying germs like the coronavirus than regular soaps, but it turns out that that is nothing more than a myth. Regular soap works just as well in killing the coronavirus and other viruses and bacteria than antibacterial soap and it has less health and environmental risks associated with it. 

Washing your hands with soap and water kills germs like coronavirus by destroying its membrane and then trapping it in a bubble and washing it away. It does this whether or not the soap is labeled as “antibacterial.” Antibacterial soaps are called such because they have added chemicals with antibacterial properties. According to the FDA, there is no evidence that the addition of antibacterial chemicals to soap destroys more germs than regular soap or helps to reduce illness. In other words, soap already works so well at removing disease-causing pathogens from your hands that there is no point in adding extra antibacterial substances.

Not only does antibacterial soap work no better than regular soap, but antibacterial soaps may be harmful to your health. Triclosan is one of the most common chemicals used in antibacterial soaps. There is some evidence to suggest that triclosan may increase the potential for developing skin cancer after exposure to UV rays . There are also other studies that show that triclosan can bioaccumulate in fatty tissues in certain organisms, though the environmental or health effects of that bioaccumulation are not yet known but could possibly have a role in producing allergies or reproductive defects. Just to be fully clear, the evidence is in the very early stages and only suggestive at this point. We cannot say that triclosan is definitively harmful to the health of humans or other animals, only that some evidence points to it having the potential to be harmful. If soap with triclosan worked better to prevent illness than soap without it, the positive effects could outweigh the small potential for harm. However, there are no known benefits to adding triclosan to soap, so even a small health risk is not worth it. This is probably why the FDA officially banned the use of 19 antibacterial chemicals, one of which was triclosan, in soaps in 2016. However, if you check the ingredient list on antibacterial soaps, many of them still contain banned ingredients like triclosan. The safest way to ensure you aren’t using a potentially harmful banned ingredient in your soap is to not use any soap labeled as antibacterial.

The biggest harm of antibacterial soaps though is that they contribute to the creation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  We are lucky to live in a time when antibiotics are able to cure us of diseases that humans regularly died from before the discovery of penicillin, but bacteria are constantly evolving. Soaps with antibacterial chemicals have those chemicals present in such low doses that instead of killing the bacteria outright, it may only be killing the weakest, leaving the stronger ones to multiply. Already there are antibiotic-resistant strains of disease-causing bacteria like tuberculosis and syphilis and our future will likely see many more. Antibacterial soaps may be helping in the creation of these super-bugs without adding any extra benefit in prevention of illness.

Fears about the harms of antibacterial chemical use in consumer products is what convinced over 200 scientists and medical professionals in 2017 to sign the Florence Statement on Triclosan and Triclocarban, stating that these chemicals and others like them should not be used in consumer products like soap where it has no known benefit.  The fact that companies continue to tout antibacterial soap, including many with banned ingredients, to consumers when there are no known benefits is confusing to the average person just looking for a way to protect themselves and their families.

We are living in very scary times right now, where a looming threat of disease and death seems to be around every corner and we are all looking for ways to best protect ourselves and the people around us. Using antibacterial soap is not one of those ways. Antibacterial soap is a scam. It is more expensive and sounds like it would work better, but rather than protect us from illness it creates conditions that may increase future illness. If all you have access to is antibacterial soap, by all means please use it. It will work just as well as regular soap in killing coronavirus and other disease-causing viruses, bacteria, and fungi and the potential harms are small. But, when you’re at the store deciding which soap to buy, save some money and avoid falling for the antibacterial soap scam by buying soap without the antibacterial label.

Some other interesting facts about soap or soap-like products:

Soap-like products that aren’t labeled as “soap” are still basically soap: Even soaps that aren’t labeled as “soap” because they use synthetic detergents, such as products with words like “cleanser” or famously the dove beauty bar, are still chemically doing the same thing as products labeled with the word “soap” and will kill coronavirus. Basically, if it gets sudsy and washes dirt, grime, and germs off your hands, it’s soap and washing your hands with it is one of the best ways to protect yourself from illnesses like COVIv.

Hand sanitizers do not create antibiotic-resistent bacteria: I know I just got done talking about how antibiotic soaps can contribute to the creation of antibiotic-resistent super-bugs, but you’ll be glad to know that your hand sanitizer does not. Most hand sanitizers do not actually have antibacterial chemicals. They kill germs using alcohol, which breaks apart the germ’s proteins, destroying their cell. You can think of it a bit like the equivalent of using boiling water to kill disease-causing bacteria or viruses that might be present. Saying that, the biggest danger from hand sanitizers are that they are extremely flammable, so if you’ve been stocking up during the pandemic, make sure to store your hand sanitizer in a location where it won’t come near anything that could cause a spark or fire.

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Jamie Bernstein

Jamie Bernstein is a data, stats, policy and economics nerd who sometimes pretends she is a photographer. She is @uajamie on Twitter and Instagram. If you like my work here at Skepchick & Mad Art Lab, consider sending me a little sumthin' in my TipJar: @uajamie

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3 Comments

  1. 40 years I worked in a hospital lab with all sorts of bacteria and viruses – Hep B, HIV, Staph, even Jacob Creuzfeldt samples – never a problem and I totally agree frequent washing just with ordinary soap and water is the way to go.

    This got me looking though. We did have Gammophen soap at one stage, now with Triclosan but was it always? Gammophen was also a trade name for hexachlorophene which was notorious for killing many babies in France in 1972, and leaving hundreds more with brain damage, after which they regulated that more tightly.

    https://cosmeticsandskin.com/efe/hexachlorophene.php

    This is the sort of mud that when stirred can lead to acute paranoia, I mean, for instance, nobody knows yet what causes Alzheimers Disease.

    Okay so FDA banned a lot of similar additives in soaps in 2016 but STILL they can be used in TOOTHPASTE?
    FFS! Why?

    All these fucking bright ideas that solve a minor problem, in this case, BO, but then a couple of decades later turn out to be the cause of massive health problems. Ima stop before I begin to sound too much like an antivaxxer or anti fluoride….

  2. How does the use of antibacterial agents in soaps evolve superbugs if the soap in the product kills everything anyway?

    It is easy to see how the improper use of antibiotics in medicine can induce organisms to evolve resistances.

    1. Well, “everything” is defined as “99.9999999….%” so there are always a few bugs left over. It’s like some weeds have evolved resistance to glyphosate.

      About the second point, medicine gets a bad rap for overuse of antibiotics but that’s NOTHING compared to the tons used in agriculture, yet another disaster waiting to happen…

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