To protect your family from the flu, prevent colds, and arm yourself against food poisoning, washing your hands with soap labeled “antibacterial” may seem like you’re doubling down on your germ-killing efforts. But is antibacterial soap really more effective (and necessary) than regular soap?
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), probably not. There’s no scientific proof that over-the-counter antibacterial soaps are better at lowering your risk of getting sick than ordinary bars of suds.
For one thing, the term “antibacterial” means it’s meant to kill bacteria, not viruses (and viruses are what cause the flu and colds). Secondly, it’s simply the act of washing your hands that has most of the germ-fighting power. If you’ll indulge us in a brief chemistry lesson, here’s how washing your hands with soap—of any kind—works to stop the spread germs:
There are two general types of molecules, polar, which can be mixed into water (like sugar) and nonpolar, which can’t be mixed into water (like oil). Soap molecules are amphipathic, which means they have both polar and nonpolar properties. When it comes to illness-causing bacteria and viruses, the amphipathic nature of the soap helps lift the dirt and germs off the skin and into the water so they can be washed away.
Of course, antibacterial soaps do that too, but they contain additional ingredients (triclosan being one of the most well-known) that are meant to stop any leftover bacteria from replicating after you’re done washing. However, some studies suggest that these additives, while good in theory, may actually do more harm than good.
Animal studies have shown that triclosan may alter the way some hormones work, which raises concern about its effect on humans, though more research is needed. Researchers have also found that triclosan may increase the risk of generating drug- and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Because of these concerns, the FDA issued a ruling in 2013 requiring all manufacturers to provide direct evidence that soaps marketed as antibacterial are better at reducing germs and risk of infection compared to regular soap. To this day, no sufficient evidence has been provided.
In fact, one study found that when it comes to preventing childhood diarrhea and pneumonia, it didn’t matter whether a household used antibacterial soap or plain soap. Using either one regularly both cut the incidence of the two conditions in half.
Bottom line: To scour away sickness, stick to simple suds (no antibacterial label necessary). Wash your hands with clean, running water for at least 20 seconds, rinse thoroughly with running water, then dry.