Antibacterial Soap vs. Regular Soap | Which One Is Better?

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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

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.

Pros of Antibacterial Soap

  • Antibacterial soap still kills bad bacteria, but it shouldn’t be overused.
  • It's easy to find in most stores.

Cons of Antibacterial Soap

  • Overuse of antibacterial products can reduce the healthy bacteria on your skin.
  • Added chemicals to antibacterial soaps can remove natural oils, making skin drier.
  • Using antibacterial soap or hand sanitizer can make people think they do not have to wash their hands as thoroughly or frequently.

Tips for Using Hand Sanitizer

When soap and running water are unavailable, using hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol levels 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:

  • Apply enough hand sanitizer to cover all surfaces of the hands.
  • Rub sanitizer on hands covering the tops, between fingers and fingertips.
  • Keep rubbing until hands are dry or for about 20 seconds.

Regular or Plain Soap

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's effective in getting rid of bacteria and other virus-causing germs.

Pros of Regular Soap

  • Antibacterial soaps are no more effective than regular soap and water for killing disease-causing germs.
  • Regular soap tends to be less expensive than antibacterial soap and hand sanitizers.
  • Regular soap won’t kill healthy bacteria on the skin’s surface.

Cons of Regular Soap

  • People may not wash hands thoroughly enough for regular soap to kill bad bacteria.
  • You must look at the labels closely to find a regular soap.

5 Steps for Effective Handwashing

“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.

The CDC recommends these five tips for effective handwashing: 

  • Wet. Place your hands under running (cold or warm) water and add soap.
  • Lather. Rub your hands together, making a soapy lather.
  • Scrub. Wash the front and back of hands, between your fingers and under nails for at least 20 seconds or two rounds of the song “Happy Birthday.”
  • Rinse. Place your hands well under running (cold or warm) water until the soap is gone.
  • Dry.  hands thoroughly with a clean towel or air dry them.

Have little ones around? Read 6 ways to make handwashing fun for kids next.