The Truth About Antibacterial Soap
If you’re using antibacterial soap, it’s probably because you want to keep your home hygienic and your family safe.
But is it really necessary to use antibacterial soap?
Or do antimicrobial soaps come with more risks than benefits?
It’s time to present you with some mind-boggling antibacterial soap facts.
We’ve looked at the research and what scientists have discovered about antibacterial soap will absolutely surprise you.
Let us break it down for you in this post.
What is antibacterial soap?
Antibacterial soap and antimicrobial soap are soap that contains special ingredients that kill bacteria and other microbes.
Such soaps were initially developed for use in hospitals. However, in the 1990s, companies realized the huge amount of money to be gained by directly marketing these products to consumers for household use. Antibacterial soaps made their debut in the 1990s.
Whereas regular soap washes off bacteria, antibacterial-soap manufacturers claim that their product packs an additional punch. Their products don’t just wash off bacteria, they say; they also kill germs dead.
Is all soap antibacterial?
Conventionally, only hand soaps that include ingredients specifically designed to kill bacteria are referred to antibacterial soap or antimicrobial soap.
But that doesn’t mean that regular hand soaps don’t have their own way of handling germs.
Here’s how they do it:
Germs both good and bad stick to your the natural oils on your skin.
Washing your hands with regular soap removes the germs and the oils as they flow down the drain.
Washing hands with soap is more effective than with plain water because soap binds to the oils on your hands in a way that plain water cannot.
Washing with soap also prompts you to rub your hands together more, which further helps to get rid of germs.
You could argue that regular soap is antibacterial too, because it gets rid of bacteria, even though it doesn’t kill them.
So do you need to actual kill germs, as antibacterial soap and antimicrobial soap claim to do, in order to avoid getting sick?
Regular soap vs antibacterial soap
Research consistently shows that washing off the germs using regular ol’ hand soap is completely sufficient, and works just as well as antibacterial soap in ridding your hands of harmful bacteria.
How does this translate into protecting you from getting sick?
Researchers at the University of Michigan conducted a meta-analysis of all the data in 4 electronic databases for hand-hygiene trials that were collected from 1960 to 2007.
The analysis revealed that antibacterial soap was no more effective in protecting against gastrointestinal and respiratory illness than regular soap.
A separate study from Columbia University supported this conclusion, finding that antibacterial soap and antimicrobial soap offer no benefit for healthy people.
The same study also showed that people with certain chronic illnesses experienced a higher incidence of fevers, coughs, and runny noses when using antibacterial soaps.
How can it be the case that antibacterial soap causes more people to get sick, instead of fewer?
The researchers discovered that this phenomenon has to do with the benevolent, native bacteria living naturally on our bodies that defend us from other bacteria that can harm us.
When you use antibacterial soap, you kill the benevolent bacteria along with the “invaders”.
As a result, some people will get sick more often, instead of less, when using antibacterial soaps.
So when comparing the benefits of antibacterial soap vs regular soap side-by-side, the answer is clear:
Regular soap wins, hands down.
Other problems with antibacterial hand soap
As you might’ve guessed, an increase in runny noses and fevers wasn’t the only problem antibacterial soap ingredients pose.
Research has showed that triclosan, one of the most popular antibacterial soap ingredients, is extremely harmful to the environment. Once triclosan goes down your drain and enters the watershed, it kills aquatic life – animals and plants alike (learn why biodegradable soap is important for your home).
Another ingredient often found in antibacterial soaps and wipes is hexachlorophene. Hexachlorophene has been found to enter the human body through the skin, where it spreads out in the body through the bloodstream and causes brain damage.
Yet another major concern about antibacterial soap is that it creates drug-resistant bacteria.
One study found that even the bacteria on your skin can become drug-resistant.
Another study went further, and studied the effect of triclosan on bacteria living in household drains.
They found that while triclosan kills the weaker bacteria in your drain, it doesn’t kill the strong ones. The strong ones not only survive the impact of triclosan, but also eat it.
Study after study confirmed that conventional soaps are just as effective as antibacterial soaps when it comes to washing off germs.
Manufacturers, meanwhile, have been unable to prove that antibacterial soap ingredients offer consumers any benefit whatsoever.
And in fact, due to the number of risks to human and environmental health from antibacterial soap ingredients, antibacterial soaps are actually much worse than their non-antibacterial counterparts.
This and other reasons led the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban antibacterial soaps and antimicrobial soaps.
But there’s even more to it.
Bad enough to be banned
These considerations were why, in 2016, the FDA chose to ban 19 chemical ingredients from being used in antibacterial hand soaps.
But only from hand soaps. Unfortunately, you can still find them in other products like toothpastes, detergents, wet-wipes, all-purpose cleaners, and dish soaps.
So that you know which ones to look out for in these products, here’s the list of the chemicals that got banned by the FDA:
- Iodine complex (ammonium ether sulfate and polyoxyethylene sorbitan monolaurate)
- Iodine complex (phosphate ester of alkylaryloxy polyethylene glycol)
- Nonylphenoxypoly (ethyleneoxy) ethanoliodine
- Poloxamer-iodine complex
- Povidone-iodine 5 to 10 percent
- Undecoylium chloride iodine complex
- Methylbenzethonium chloride
- Phenol (greater than 1.5 percent)
- Phenol (less than 1.5 percent) 16
- Secondary amyltricresols
- Sodium oxychlorosene
- Triple dye
But just because the FDA decided to ban the 19 antibacterial soap ingredients doesn’t mean that antibacterial soaps are a thing of the past, either.
Many brands continue to make antibacterial hand soaps. They merely switched out the banned ingredients and replaced them with new chemicals (which they test on animals - learn why it's important to use cruelty-free dish soap).
There is no evidence that these new chemicals are any more effective than the old ones, and – like the old ones – they come with added health risks.
For example, benzalkonium chloride can harm your respiratory system, and is known to cause developmental and reproductive problems.
Likewise, chloroxylenol is a developmental and reproductive toxin.
Because of the many problems associated with the chemicals in antibacterial products, it’s much safer to steer clear of any brand that advertises antibacterial effects.
Which leads us to the next question.
Is dish soap antibacterial?
Most large dish soap brands offer a special antibacterial dish soap within their product lines.
But the question is: do you really need antibacterial dish soap?
Here’s the thing:
A study found that the only time antibacterial soap will actually fulfill its promise and remove more bacteria than regular soap is when the bacteria are allowed to soak in the soap for at least 9 hours.
Even when researchers soaked the bacteria for 6 hours, there was hardly any difference in effectiveness compared to regular soap.
And this small victory was only achieved without diluting antibacterial soap with water.
Understandably, the study concluded that antibacterial soap doesn’t provide any superior protection from germs.
Another study discovered that antibacterial soap doesn’t even reduce the number bacteria in dish sponges.
In so many words, the same pattern that we observed in hand soap also holds true for antibacterial dish soap.
Regular dish soap gets rid of germs just as effectively as antibacterial dish soap, if not even more effectively, since it doesn’t include the harmful extra ingredients that antibacterial dish soaps do.
This raises another question...
Do you need to protect yourself from germs?
For people who do not have an immune deficiency, the kind of bacteria in your home are not as dangerous as the kinds found in hospitals, which antibacterial soaps antimicrobial soaps were initially created for.
And a mounting body of research found that exposure to germs is generally helpful for building children’s immune systems to prevent illnesses later in life.
On the other hand, going out of your way to restrict your kids’ exposure to germs can lead to asthma, autoimmune diseases, and allergies.
Furthermore, the more widespread antibacterial products become, the more they will create super-bacteria that become immune to antibiotics.
And that’s not all.
You could even say that it’s not germs that you need to protect your home from, but rather, antibacterial products!
Antibacterial claims are a red flag
Large brands that jump on the antibacterial dish soap bandwagon care about marketing and sales first and foremost, rather than the health of their customers.
These brands don’t care the least bit about the toxicity of their products, and they love to pack their products with chemicals more generally – not only when it comes to the antibacterial version of their product.
For example, just look at some of the most common manufacturers for antibacterial dish soap, like Dawn and Palmolive.
Is Dawn dish soap antibacterial?
Not all of the soaps in their product line, but some of them are.
And here are some of the harsh chemicals found in Dawn antibacterial dish soap more generally – even in non-antibacterial versions of their product:
For starters, their dish soaps all contain ALS (ammonium lauryl/laureth sulfate) or SLS (sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate), which irritates and dries out skin. (SLS and ALS are why your skin feels dry after washing the dishes by hand - learn how to get soft hands despite doing the dishes here).
Their products also contain “fragrance” and “colors”, which are catch-all terms companies use to hide any of thousands of chemicals.
Brands aren’t legally required to disclose the actual ingredients they use to give a product its scent or color, and so these nonspecific ingredient-categories allow manufacturers to hide chemicals from you, the consumer.
Dawn, as well as one of their largest competitors, Palmolive, also contain methylchloroisothiazolinone, an ingredient that is extremely toxic to aquatic life.
As soon as it flows down your drain and gets into your local watershed, it harms the ecosystem.
And it’s also bad for you: it can irritate and sensitize your skin, and cause allergic contact dermatitis.
This is just the tip of the iceberg.
Dawn and Palmolive antibacterial dish soap contain lots more harmful chemicals besides the ones we’ve listed here. You can check ’em out here.
The point is this: if you’re interested in keeping a hygienic and healthy home, it’s not enough to simply steer clear of antibacterial soaps.
Antibacterial soaps are so harmful that the mere inclusion of an antibacterial product in a brand’s lineup should be a red flag to you that this company doesn’t think twice about filling their products (both antibacterial and regular) with harmful chemicals.
Better stay away from these brands.
You can find out more about harmful ingredients in everyday household products on the EWG’s website.
So, is antibacterial dish soap necessary?
The verdict is no.
Now that you know that antibacterial soaps in general and antibacterial dish soap particularly don’t have the promised effect of killing harmful bacteria, that they aren’t necessary to protect your health in the first place, and that can in fact harm your health – there’s no reason for you to buy them.
Instead you should look for a dish soap that gets the job done and is truly good for your health and your skin.
Look for a product made with genuinely whole, natural ingredients that have been proven to work safely.
The best dish soap on the market is Yaya Maria’s, a genuinely (100%) natural dish soap that really works. It’s tough on removing grease and dirt – and also moonlights as the best hand soap you’ll find, leaving hands soft and smooth.
You can find more information here.