Should You Be Using Antibacterial Soap?

Mother and daughter washing hands

If you’ve been using antibacterial soap or body wash thinking you’re preventing illness, you may want to think again.

The Food and Drug Administration says there’s no evidence antibacterial soaps are any better at preventing illness than regular soap and water. There is also concern about the potential health risk of antibiotic resistance from some of the products’ ingredients.

The FDA wants manufacturers of these products to prove they actually do what they say—and are safe over the long term. There is concern that using too many antibacterial products, coupled with the routine overuse of antibiotics for viral illnesses, can prevent people from being exposed to common microorganisms, leading to a weaker immune system.

Triclosan is at the Heart of the Debate

The most controversial ingredients include triclosan, which is found in about 75% of liquid antibacterial soaps, and triclocarban, used in about one-third of bar soaps. Triclosan once was limited to hospitals, but found its way into home products in the 1990s. Now you can find the chemical in soaps, wipes, hand gels, cutting boards, even mattress pads.

The FDA, however, never fully evaluated triclosan’s use in homes, and now manufacturers have to prove the benefits or pull their products from the shelves.

Although manufacturers say they have data proving the products kill more bacteria than conventional soap, the FDA wants them to prove there’s a clinical benefit, such as reduced infections. Otherwise, it says people may be exposed to higher levels of these drugs over a lifetime than previously believed.

The FDA’s decision applies only to personal hygiene products, but it could have implications for an entire industry that has been adding triclosan to thousands of products for the last 20 years. The industry has a year to submit data to the FDA before the rule is finalized.

In Europe, meanwhile, the European Union banned triclosan in all products that come in contact with food, such as containers and utensils.

You Can’t Go Wrong with Soap and Water

Bottom line: If you’ve been using antibacterial soaps and washes, the best advice is to simply wash your hands with regular soap and water. If you’re in a place where you can’t wash, a squirt of alcohol-based hand sanitizer would suffice as long as your hands aren’t visibly dirty.

Proper Hand-washing Technique Matters Most

Properly washing your hands is one of the most important things you can do to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others. Here’s what the CDC recommends:

  • Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
  • Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  • Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the "Happy Birthday" song from beginning to end twice.
  • Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
  • Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.
author name

Andrea L. Stern, MD

Andrea L. Stern, MD, is a physician with LG Health Physicians Mount Joy Family Medicine and has expertise in the full spectrum of family medicine.

Education: Medical School—Boston University; Internship and Residency—Lancaster General Hospital.

Call: 717-653-2929

About LG Health Hub

The LG Health Hub features breaking medical news and straightforward advice to help individuals of all ages make healthy choices and reach their wellness goals. The blog puts articles by trusted Lancaster General Health clinical experts, good 'n healthy recipes, videos, patient stories, and health risk assessments at your fingertips.

 

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