Father and daughter washing hands

Are All Soaps Antibacterial?

Kills 99.9% of all germs and antibacterial are just two phrases that makes us stop and think “ooh this must be a good product”. There are a lot of claims that companies make about their products, but what about the companies that don’t make such claims? Are they not as effective? Do they not kill germs? Today we’ll be specifically dipping into the world of soap and investigating whether all soaps are antibacterial and ultimately if you should pay that little bit extra for antibacterial soap.

How Do Antibacterial Soap Work?

If you thought that antibacterial soap contained something that ordinary soap does not, then you’d be correct! When we wash our hands, we don’t remove all the microbes living on our skin and this is where the antibacterial soap plays its role. They contain chemicals that are intended to stop the bacteria left on our hands from replicating. Antibacterial soaps tend to contain a compound called triclosan to achieve this. Triclosan is a chemical that is also found in other household goods such as cosmetics and toothpaste, and is poisonous. Triclosan poisons a certain enzyme that is found in these microorganisms. It works by attacking these microbes in such a way that they can no longer reproduce.

So, in addition to how regular soaps work, antibacterial soaps have that added property to stop the growth of further germs on our skin.

How Do Regular Soap Kill Germs?

The short answer is, they don’t. Instead, washing our hands with soap physically break apart the germs on our hands. Generally speaking, most molecules either love water (hydrophilic) or hate water (hydrophobic). Anything that loves water is attracted to water and so by rinsing our hands, the water loving molecules are washed away. But the water hating molecules, continue to stick to our hands. This is where our trusted soap comes in.

Soap molecules have a hydrophilic end and a hydrophobic end. The hydrophobic end is able to attract the water hating molecules and pull them away from our skin. The hydrophilic end is then attracted to the running water and is washed away along with any germs it managed to pull from our skin.

This effect even works with viruses such as the coronavirus where ordinary soap is able to wash away COVID-19. If you are struggling to imagine how this works, image trying to wash off oil and grease from our hands. Because the oils do not mix well with water (they are hydrophobic), under running water, rather than the oils being washed away they continue to stick to our hands. But when we wash our hands with soap, the oils are lifted off our hands and are washed away. This is essentially how soap washes away germs.

So, to answer the question are all soaps antibacterial. Yes, they are!

Antibacterial Soap vs Regular Soap

Comparing both soaps at face value, it would appear as if antibacterial soaps are better. After all, they offer all the benefits of regular soap with the added antiseptic benefits provided by the chemicals that deactivate the microbes left on our hands. In fact, a research paper in 2011 found that "antibacterial were slightly more effective than bland soaps" when comparing the effectiveness against bacteria. That said, there are sources such the Department of Health who disagree and explain that antibacterial soap is no more effective than plain soaps in killing germs . These views are also shared by the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) where they stated that they don’t "have evidence that triclosan in over-the-counter customer antibacterial soaps and body washes provides any benefit over washing with regular soap and water." (triclosan is a chemical often found in antibacterial soap).

Contradicting views in science is not all that uncommon. For the sake of giving us something worth comparing, we take the believe the antibacterial soap is better. For those who studied mathematics, we’re about to embark on a bit of proof by contradiction (well not exactly, but close enough).

Antibacterial soaps are slightly more effective than bland soaps. But, is that slight difference worth it? We discussed earlier how antibacterial soaps have additional chemicals which gives it its antiseptic characteristics. It’s time to delve into these ingredients and explore that they do.

Triclosan is an example of common chemical compound used in antibacterial soap. Where this is great at stopping germs from reproducing, research found that it might now be all that great. Where these ingredients are great at killing of the germs, they were also pretty good at killing good bacteria as well – remember there is good and bad bacteria. There is also research that suggests that these chemicals can cause health concerns such as generating bacteria that become more resistant to antibiotics, developing food allergies and more worryingly, may have have carcinogenic properties .

At this point, it seems clear that the slight advantage of using antibacterial soap over regular soap just is not worth the health risks it comes with. But just for a moment, let’s pretend they are. After all, surely not all antibacterial soaps are bad?

In September 2016, the FDA ruled that "antiseptic wash products containing certain active ingredients can no longer be marketed". Why? "Because manufacturers did not demonstrate that the ingredients are both safe for long-term daily use and more effective than plain soap and water in preventing illness and the spread of certain infections."

The fact that the manufacturers could not prove that it is safe for long-term use worries me. That’s like ordering chicken at a restaurant and the chef not being sure if my cooked chicken has been near raw meat. It’ll probably still taste great, but then I’ll quickly regret it.

A proper hand washing technique with warm water and soap is better than antibacterial soap and all the risks that accompany it. Regular soap will still get rid of germs including working against the coronavirus.

We set out to answer the question: are all soaps antibacterial? Now that we know they are but also know the risks associated with the soaps marked as antibacterial, we should be a bit more cautious about the ingredients we allow to touch our skin.