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Which One Works Better: Antibacterial Soap or Plain Soap?

A survey by the American Cleaning Institute and the industry-run Personal Care Products Council revealed that 74 percent of Americans use antibacterial soap.

Fifty-six percent of them use it regularly, and, reportedly, 75 percent of moms with children in the household said they would be “angry” if antibacterial soap was no longer on the market.1

This “anger,” however, would be misplaced, since antibacterial soap manufacturers have been suggesting the products are necessary to fight germs, and insinuating they’re superior to plain soap and water in keeping away illness, for years.

Such soaps may have their place, such as in an operating room prior to surgery, but they’re being vastly overused in homes, schools, restaurants, and other settings with potentially devastating consequences.

Despite the reality, 84 percent of US adults surveyed said they have no health or environmental concerns about antibacterial soap.

The actual health and environmental risks of antibacterial soap have only relatively recently been uncovered, and they’re still not widely known, at least among consumers. Hopefully, the tide is beginning to turn, however, as yet another study has shown no significant benefit to using antibacterial soap.

‘No Significant Difference’ Between Plain Soap and Antibacterial Soap

In December 2013, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed a rule stating that manufacturers must provide data to demonstrate that antibacterial soap is more effective than plain soap and water.

The current study examined this question by exposing 20 FDA-proposed bacterial strains to plain or antibacterial soaps.2

The bacterial strains included Escherichia coli, Listeria monocytogenes, and Salmonella enteritidis, among others, and the antibacterial soap used the same formulation as plain soap, but containing 0.3 percent triclosan (the most widely used antiseptic agent in soap, as the maximum concentration allowed by law).

The bacteria were exposed to the soaps in petri dishes for 20 seconds at 22°C (room temperature) and 40°C (warm temperature) in order to simulate hand-washing conditions typically used by adults.

The bacteria were also spread onto the hands of study volunteers, who then washed their hands for 30 seconds using either type of soap and warm temperature water. The researchers found:

“Antibacterial soap containing triclosan (0.3 percent) was no more effective than plain soap at reducing bacterial contamination when used under 'real-life' conditions.”

It was only after the bacteria were soaked in antibacterial soap for nine hours that the triclosan-containing soap killed more bacteria than the plain soap – a clearly useless “benefit” for the average consumer.

The study’s lead researcher noted that exaggerating the effectiveness of antibacterial products should be banned, as it can confuse consumers.3

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