We're exposed to millions of germs and bacteria every day. Many of us use antibacterial products to reduce our risk of getting sick or passing germs and bacteria onto others – but are they really more effective at killing the “bad guys” than regular soap? Eric Haugen, MD, UnityPoint Health helps us understand the pros and cons.
Antibacterial soap (also called antimicrobial or antiseptic) is any cleaning product with active antimicrobial ingredients added and not found in regular soaps.
“An antimicrobial is something that works to kills microorganisms or stops their growth. For example, antibiotics and antibacterial soaps are used to fight bacteria,” Dr. Haugen says.
Antibacterial soaps used to contain the chemical triclosan, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned it from household and health care products, because research suggests it may impact hormone levels and bacterial resistance.
“While bacteria sound like a bad thing, it can actually be good for you. Your body needs bacteria to maintain a healthy, balanced environment on your skin," Dr. Haugen says.
If you're not sure if your soap is antibacterial, look for the word “antibacterial” on the label. The FDA says a Drug Fact Label is another sign a hand soap or body wash has antibacterial ingredients in it.
When soap and running water are unavailable, using alcohol-based hand sanitizers can be an effective alternative.
“While hand sanitizer is nice in a pinch, it doesn't eliminate all germs and should not be used when hands are visibly greasy or dirty,” Dr. Haugen says.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the following tips for children and adults using hand sanitizer:
Regular soap is designed to decrease water's surface tension and lift dirt and oils off surfaces, so it can be easily rinsed away. Though regular soap does not contain added antibacterial chemicals, it is effective in getting rid of bacteria and other virus-causing germs.
“It's more important for you to focus on your handwashing technique than what type of soap you use. Washing hands with soap (either antibacterial or regular) and water is one of the best ways to remove germs, avoid getting sick and prevent the spread of germs to others,” Dr. Haugen says.