With new sicknesses floating around, everyone is now more mindful about keeping germs at bay. People are wearing masks, stocking up on alcohol and hand sanitizer, and constantly washing their hands with antibacterial soap. But is the soap you’re using really as effective at protecting you from sickness as you believe it to be?
What to Know about Antibacterial Soap
Soaps are made through a process called saponification: mixing vegetable or animal fat with alkaline (usually lye); today’s commercial soap bars make use of chemicals to replace natural fat and alkaline, making them hard, cheap, and easy to produce. The mixture is broken down and rolled or milled to remove excess water. Fragrances and colors are added before the mixture is turned into blocks of soap and cut up or molded into bars.
All kinds of soap essentially work the same way: They strip a surface of oil and dirt with the help of water. But, as a Harvard article explains, antibacterial soaps are meant to go a step further: “Antibacterial soaps have all the same properties as regular soap, but with an extra ingredient added that is intended to stop the bacteria remaining on your skin from replicating. The idea is that this additive will further protect the hand-washer from harmful bacteria as compared to regular soap.” The article notes, however, that these added ingredients don’t really have any effect on viruses and just reduce the risk from bacterial germs.
One extra ingredient added to antibacterial soaps is typically triclosan. But, as the Harvard article states, there is some evidence that triclosan may be harmful, having an effect on hormones (at least on cells and animals in lab tests), for one. It can also increase lead to the mutation of some bacteria, making them resistant to antibiotics. There are other ingredients that may be harmful chemicals in soap including hexachlorophene, which may cause skin irritation or lead to neurotoxicity.
The evidence isn’t conclusive but neither is there any evidence that these additives actually increase the effectiveness of soap. Because of this, the U.S. Food and Drug Association issued a final rule in 2016 that triclosan and 19 other ingredients in antibacterial soaps were no more effective than plain soap and water and thus could not be marketed as such. (This ruling does not cover hand sanitizers, wipes, and antibacterial products in healthcare settings.)
The Proper Way to Wash Your Hands
As the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says, clean hands save lives. But instead of focusing on the kind of soap you use, it’s better to pay attention to the way you wash your hands. Follow these five science-backed steps from the CDC—wet, lather, scrub, rinse, and dry:
1 Wet your hands with clean, running water, turn off the tap, and apply soap. Cold water is less irritating to skin and is more eco-friendly. Turning off the tap is likewise more eco-friendly as it saves water.
2 Lather your hands by rubbing them together with soap. Be thorough—lather the backs of your hands, between fingers, and under nails (a hotbed of germs). The friction helps lift the dirt and germs from your skin.
3 Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. That’s about as long as the “Happy birthday” song. You’ll need to do it longer if your hands are particularly dirty.
4 Rinse your hands well under clean, running water. Running water is best as dipping your hands in a basin of water can re-contaminate the skin. This process washes away all the microbes you scrubbed off as well as soap residue that can cause irritation.
5 Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them. The CDC states that germs can be transferred more easily to and from wet hands.
Additionally, the CDC states that you should be especially mindful of washing hands before, during, and after preparing food; before eating; before and after caring for someone at home who is sick; before and after treating a cut or wound; after using the toilet; after changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet; after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing; after touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste; after handling pet food or pet treats; and after touching garbage. Just make sure you check the soap ingredients for maximum effectiveness.
If handwashing is not an immediate option, the CDC states that you can use hand sanitizers that are 60% alcohol, keeping in mind that they’re still not as effective as washing with soap and water.