Children's Health and Wellness
April 2014

Is Antibacterial Soap Worth the Lather?

The simple act of washing your hands with plain soap can have an important effect on your health. It can help ward off germs—no special soap required. In fact, lathering up with antibacterial soap may not impart better germ protection. Its active ingredient may also do more harm than good.

A lack of solid evidence

The FDA recently questioned the use of antibacterial soap. It proposed a rule requiring manufacturers to prove their products work as claimed. If that's not possible, the companies will have to reformulate their soaps. Or they may need to change the label to continue selling them.

Why the concern? These products claim to fend off more germs than regular soap. But past research shows mixed results on how well they work. In one review of 27 studies, antibacterial soaps did no better than regular soaps. Another study said they might give slightly better protection.

One major drawback: Many of these studies were small in scope. They also didn't specifically test whether the products prevented infections. What's more, the amount of soap used and hand scrubbing time varied.

Safety considerations

The FDA is also concerned about the safety of certain chemicals in antibacterial soaps. Many of these products contain triclosan. It's an ingredient that may stop the growth of bacteria. You can find it in many other consumer products, such as toys, carpeting, and cosmetics.

Some animal studies suggest triclosan may alter hormone production. But no such link has yet been found in humans. Plus, scientists don't know the chemical's long-term effects.

Triclosan may also contribute to the growing threat of antibacterial resistance. More bacteria are becoming immune to antibiotics. This resistance is making it harder to treat many illnesses.

To date, the FDA has not found enough evidence to ban the use of triclosan. But it's currently working with the EPA to better understand how the chemical may harm human health. For now, you can easily protect yourself from germs by washing your hands with regular soap and water.

 

Hand Washing Tips 

Washing your hands is a healthy habit worth doing right. It can help protect you against illnesses like the common cold and the flu. Remember to wash your hands often and follow these tips:

  • Use warm water and plenty of soap. Work up a good lather.

  • Clean the whole hand, under your nails, between your fingers, and up the wrists.

  • Wash for at least 15 to 20 seconds. Don’t just wipe. Scrub well.

  • Rinse, letting the water run down your fingers, not up your wrists.

  • Dry your hands well. Use a paper towel to turn off the faucet and open the door.

 

Keep your whole family healthy. Here are tips on teaching your children to properly wash their hands. 

 

Online resources

CDC

FDA

 

Print Source: A Meta-Analysis of the Published Literature on the Effectiveness of Antimicrobial Soaps. R. Montville and D. Schaffner. Journal of Food Production. 2011;74(11):1875-82.
Print Source: Consumer Antibacterial Soaps: Effective or Just Risky? A.E. Aiello, E.L. Larson, and S.B. Levy. Clinical Infectious Diseases. 2007; 45(suppl. 2):S137-147.
Online Source: Handwashing: Clean Hands Save Lives, CDC, 2013http://www.cdc.gov/handwashing
Online Source: When and How to Wash Your Hands, CDC, 2013http://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/when-how-handwashing.html
Online Source: Triclosan Facts, EPA, 2010http://www.epa.gov/oppsrrd1/REDs/factsheets/triclosan_fs.htm
Online Source: Triclosan: What Consumers Should Know, FDA, 2013http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm205999.htm
Online Source: FDA Taking Closer Look at ‘Antibacterial’ Soap, FDA, 2013http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm378393.htm
Online Source: FDA Issues Proposed Rule to Determine Safety and Effectiveness of Antibacterial Soaps, FDA, 2013http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm378542.htm
Online Source: Antibacterials in Household Products, Alliance for the Product Use of Antibiotics, 2010http://www.tufts.edu/med/apua/consumers/personal_home_5_3590195869.pdf
Author: Semko, Laura
Online Editor: Sinovic, Dianna
Online Medical Reviewer: Foster, Sara, RN, MPH
Date Last Reviewed: 3/21/2014
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