The Pros and Cons of Antibacterial Soap

(Hint: They’re Not What You Think)

Who would have ever dreamed we’d be wearing masks to the grocery store and giving each other elbow handshakes on the daily? While the state of the world is very odd indeed, we have observed the return of some comforting traditions, like washing our hands while singing happy birthday three times. (Bet you haven’t done that since you were in Kindergarten!) And think of the ways we’ve stretched our science brains as we’ve asked the interweb questions like, “what is the best disinfectant?” and “what is the definition of antibacterial?”

On that last point, we’re here for you. Because, we, too, have seen a trend in questions about cleaning and the best ways to stay safe in our new normal.

So, “what’s antibacterial”, you ask? Allow us. It’s basically an agent that destroys or suppresses the growth of bacteria. Antibacterials come in lots of products—including soaps, hand sanitizers, lotions, sprays, and even deodorant. But when it comes to the tried and true washing of the hands (something we’re doing about 30 times a day these days), what's the difference between antibacterial and regular soap? Ahh, yes. One of the great debates of the 21st century. Right up there with boxers or briefs.

Turns out the answer isn’t exactly cut and dry. Experts say it depends on how you’re using each of the products. Which, of course, means that if you’re using either of them wrong, it’s a total wash. In a bad way.

Most experts do agree that if you’re looking to wash your hands, face, or body, good old soap and water is the most reliable option. In fact, there’s no evidence that antibacterial soaps are any more effective at preventing illness than regular soap and water. But that doesn’t mean they should be off the table. For example, what if you don’t have access to water—like at the store or in your car? Hand sanitizers can be way more convenient than the traditional suds.

Let’s break down some pros and cons of each so that you can make the best decision for you.

Regular Soap and Water:

Pros:

  • Designed to lift dirt and oils off and can be easily rinsed away
  • Effective in getting rid of bacteria and other virus-causing germs
  • Generally less expensive than antibacterial soap and hand sanitizers
  • Won’t kill the healthy bacteria on your skin’s surface (yes, there’s such a thing as healthy bacteria, and yes, your body needs it)

Cons:

  • Not as portable or convenient as antibacterial hand sanitizers
  • Ineffective if you don’t wash thoroughly enough (20 seconds feels like forever)

Antibacterial Soap

Pros:

  • Kills bad bacteria
  • Hand sanitizer is an effective alternative when you don’t have access to soap and water
  • Hand sanitizer is available in portable travel sizes so it can go everywhere you go

Cons:

  • The added chemicals can remove your natural oils, which can dry out your skin
  • Tends to kills both good and bad bacteria, which may make antibiotics ineffective against new strains of bacteria
  • Costs more than regular soap
  • Too much can lead to dry skin that cracks, increasing your risk of infection

Antibacterial Sprays

Of course, cleaning isn’t limited to your hands and body. Staying safe also means keeping the surfaces in your home clean. That’s where good antibacterial surface cleaners come in handy.

For surfaces like countertops, doorknobs, and backpacks, reach for a disinfectant, preferably one that can initially kill 99.9% of bacteria. Microban Multi-Purpose Spray or Microban Sanitizer both do this and have the added benefit of continuing to kill bacteria for up to 24 more hours*.

Keep in mind, there’s a difference between cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting. Think of all three of these words on a spectrum, with cleaning all the way on the left, sanitizing in the middle, and disinfecting all the way to the right.

  • Cleaning removes dust, dirt, and debris. Vacuuming, wiping something up with a damp cloth, or using a Swiffer Sweeper all fall under the “cleaning” category. You have to clean things before you can sanitize them. If you don’t, you’ll be sanitizing the food crumbs and stray dog hairs covering your coffee table (we’re not judging), not the coffee table itself. And nobody wants to do that.

  • Sanitizing reduces bacteria on surfaces. And disinfecting destroys bacteria AND viruses. The only way to know whether you’re sanitizing or disinfecting is to read product labels. Top-notch products allow you to sanitize and disinfect, but probably have very specific directions for one or the other. The moral of the story is: read the label and follow its directions carefully!

It’s nice to know that in this oddball world we’re living in, we really do still have some control, especially when it comes to the way we keep ourselves and our surroundings clean. Which is good because elbow handshakes might be a thing for a while.

*When used as directed, effective against Staphylococcus aureus & Enterobacter aerogenes bacteria for 24 hours.

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