Is Antibacterial Soap Necessary?

Antibacterial soap was developed to prevent the spread of infection in hospitals, and has edged its way into our everyday lives—hand soap, hand sanitzer, and bathroom and kitchen cleansers. In addition to controversy about our culture’s overprescribing of antibiotics, there is also reason for concern about antibacterial soap. Last year, when I was teaching at Keuka College, the Science Department Division Chair and her upper level students were working to petition the school to remove hand sanitizer dispensers from around campus because of the risks.

First, let’s look at how soap works:
1. It’s made out of sodium hydroxide and fat
2. When these are combined, fatty acids separate from triglycerides and bind to hydroxide–making a salt we call “soap”
3. One part of the soap attracts water and the other part repels it
4. The hydrophobic fatty acids bind to other hydrophobic substances (dirt, bacteria, etc)
5. The bound dirt and bacteria become encapsulated in water droplets and are washed away

Ordinary soap does get rid of bacteria. So the real question is whether or not antibacterial soap does a better job, and if so, do we need that?

Support for regular soap use:

  • Having some bacteria is beneficial to us because it “eats” sweat and protects against some dangerous bacteria
  • bacteria may develop resistance to antibacterial agents over time
  • antibacterial agents in soap actually need to be left on the skin for 2 minutes to work—who washes their hands for two minutes!?
  • many sicknesses we experience are viruses and antibacterial soaps are useless against a virus

Considering these points, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that washing your hands with warm water and soap is the best method. Wash for at least 20 seconds (sing the ABCs if you’d rather not count!). It makes a difference when you do wash, but hesitate before you reach for the antibacterial soap.

2 thoughts on “Is Antibacterial Soap Necessary?”

  1. Thanks for the concise list of the benefits of soap – I am uneasy about hand sanitizers, and think we need reminders about the ways we accept chemicals in our lives.

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