Antibacterial soap don’t seem to make a lick of difference

Any brand would do.
Any brand would do.
Image: EPA/Ritchie B. Tongo
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Fear sells, and marketers know it. But as far as hygiene goes, proof is mounting that you don’t need to buy anti-bacterial soap to protect yourself against the germs of others.

A new study published Sept. 15 in the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy put the claims of antibacterial soaps to a rigorous test. In lab tests and in people, surfaces and hands exposed to 20 seconds of washing with normal and antibacterial soaps showed no difference. Both soaps got rid of the same amount of bacteria, found the Korea University researchers after analyzing the presence of 20 different bacterial strains.

Nine hours later, laboratory samples treated with antibacterial soap did show fewer bacteria. However, the researchers claim that this does not reflect a real-life situation—in the course of normal activities outside a lab, you would get new bacteria on your hands very quickly.

This is the most recent evidence for a case against the hype of antibacterial soap. In 2007, a Clinical Infectious Diseases-published review of 27 past studies looking at the differences between the use of normal and anti-bacterial soap found no difference in effectiveness.

There is even a case to be made that antibacterial soaps may be actively harmful. Triclosan—the most common antibacterial used in soaps—has been linked to disrupting hormone regulation in animals. Its prolonged use has also been linked to the increased risk of allergies. Worse still, leaving behind tiny quantities of unused antibacterials in the environment can raise resistance to the drug, which threatens to push back health gains we’ve made over the last century.

The US Food and Drug Administration, one of the world’s foremost regulatory bodies, is looking to hold soap manufacturers responsible. If by 2016 they aren’t able to show that antibacterial soap is indeed more effective, FDA will force manufacturers to take any labels or packaging that claims that antibacterial soaps are more effective off the shelves.

If you are worried about germs, just make sure to use some soap, spend at least 20 seconds washing, and scrub all parts thoroughly. Doing it often won’t hurt either.