Do Antibacterial Soaps Kill Germs and Prevent Illness?

healthy hand skin

Courtesy of Nina Matthews

You’ve seen the claims on the over 2000 hand soaps and body washes.  These products tout themselves as “anti-bacterial”, but do they really work?

We’re about to find out because as of this week the FDA is going to make antibacterial soap manufactures prove it!  It means that companies making these products will be required to produce a full-on clinical study to prove that their product really does work better than regular soap at killing germs and preventing the spread of infections.

What happens if there is no proof that an anti-bacterial soap kills germs?

Then the product can not make the claim AND the antiseptic ingredients will have to be removed from the product.  I think this is good news.

The FDA is now also requiring manufactures to prove that their antiseptic ingredients are safe.  Again, this is huge for two reasons.

First, the antiseptic ingredients triclosan (in liquid soaps) and triclocarban (in bar soap products) are building up in the environment, where they are long lasting. Humans and animals end up with these ingredients in their food and water.

Secondly, these ingredients may not be entirely safe.  They are thought by some to be hormone disruptors and animal studies suggest that daily exposure can effect testosterone, estrogen and thyroid hormones. The safety of human exposure has not been established and the FDA wants to see manufactures prove it.  Of concern is that these ingredients have been found excreted in the urine of humans so we know that they are absorbed. The presence of these antimicrobial ingredients in human urine has also been correlated with increased body mass index as well as environmental and food allergies. (I wonder if this is related to an impact of the ingredients on the gut microbiom because these 3 phenomenon have also been correlated with alterations in the gut microbial balance??  I can’t wait for this second level of research!  Click here to read more about the importance of your bodies good germs to your health.)

When will you see the changes in anti-bacterial soaps and cleansers on your store shelves?

The process will take a year. The FDA is allowing public comment until June and the manufactures have until December of 2014 to present data. We don’t know how many companies have done studies that they never presented to the FDA so we’ll just have to see how this unfolds.

Does this apply to hand sanitizers and wipes?

No. Hand sanitizers and wipes with a minimum of 60% alcohol are known to be effective against the spread of germs. They are what consumers should use to disinfect their hands when they cannot wash their hands with plain soap and running water. Washing with plain soap and running water is an “important step to avoid getting sick and to prevent spreading germs to others” according to the FDA. I agree.

What hand care do I recommend to my patients and what do I personally do to help prevent the spread of germs?

I recommend a good hand washing with plain soap and running water as the main method of preventing the spread of germs. When that is not possible, then I recommend the use of hand sanitizer products with 60% or more alcohol. The catch is that cold and flu season corresponds with winter, creating the perfect storm for chapped, itchy and painful hands. As a dermatologist I want to elevate the hand washing practice to one of healing and hydrating skin care so that your hand skin stays healthy and comfortable as you wash away germs. This is the only way to make it through the winter with healthy hand skin.

An “elevated” hand care routine involves:

  1. Using a hypoallergenic soap that rinses off entirely under that running water
  2. Plus the application of an easy to use hand cream that does not make a greasy mess on everything you touch.

best dry hand skin care products to heal chapped skinThese are the key elements of my Dry Skin Hand Kit which also includes an emergency hydrating hand treatment to quickly “right” your hands when they tip into early dryness – the inevitable consequence from all the careful hand washing and hand sanitizing you are doing to keep you and your family safe.


FDA Wants Proof of Anti-Bacterial Soap Claims 

Click here for the FDA press announcement

Photo attribution: thanks and gratitude to Nina Matthews

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8 Responses to “Do Antibacterial Soaps Kill Germs and Prevent Illness?”

  1. Jesus December 18, 2013 at 8:32 am #

    I have a few questions:

    What’s the optimal length of time that consumers should wash their hands with the regular hand soap to get effective removal of bacteria?

    Also, is it true that regular hand soap doesn’t kill bacteria, either? Rather, it suspends the bacteria on the skin with the surfactant and the running water will help rinse them down the drain. Is this correct?

    If so, wouldn’t this just spread bacteria elsewhere once they’re down the drain? How long do bacteria live when they’re not living on our bodies?

  2. Maggie December 21, 2013 at 5:23 pm #

    Thank you for this interesting blog post! It’s so relevant for winter too–with everyone loading up on hand sanitizers and hand washes. I myself just started on supplemental probiotics due to IBS and environmental/food allergies for an immune system boost. I haven’t been on antibiotics recently either but the research results would be rather interesting.

  3. Cynthia Bailey December 22, 2013 at 10:11 am #

    Please refer to the information from the CDC regarding some of your questions.

  4. Anthony December 28, 2013 at 12:45 pm #

    I work at a hospital, and hand hygiene is one of the most important things in prevention of infections from transmitting and spreading. The worst thing of all though, is, it washies all of the natural oils out of the skin. Hopefully one day there will be an easier way to combat germs..

  5. Kalpana December 30, 2013 at 4:57 am #

    yes, i too want to ask the same question what jesus has put up…and adding to this i want to know whats the guarantee that this will kill the germs and bacteria totally and we are safe from common infections of winter.

  6. Kalpana Rao December 30, 2013 at 5:04 am #

    The lack of an additional health benefit associated with the use of triclosan-containing consumer soaps over regular soap, coupled with laboratory data demonstrating a potential risk of selecting for drug resistance, warrants further evaluation by governmental regulators regarding antibacterial product claims and advertising. Further studies of this issue are encouraged.

  7. Cynthia Bailey December 30, 2013 at 7:22 am #

    Again, I refer you to the CDC, who I feel is the best source for your answers. Did you read the information on the link I gave to Jesus? It is very explicit and detailed. Here is yet another link within that CDC source that focuses on the science behind their recommendations Here is the link to the main page of the document Prevention of the spread of germs by handwashing is lifesaving – or not – and the success of it varies with so many factors that are at play for a given individual. I feel it is best to leave specific recommendations and conclusions regarding the topic to our ultimate authority on the subject, the CDC. We are fortunate that they have created such an excellent, cogent and actionable document for the public. My goal with this post is simply to put the matter before my readers for their consideration and to inform them on the topic as a current event.

  8. JESUS January 5, 2014 at 7:49 am #

    Hi Dr. Bailey. I’m sorry for the late reply.

    Thank you very much for the invaluable links you have provided! The information from the CDC is insightful and trustworthy. :-)

    “Again, I refer you to the CDC, who I feel is the best source for your answers.” <– I think there's a misunderstanding or something. I only ask once with the first post on this page. Ha-ha. I think you mistaken another post for as mine? It's all good though. I truly appreciate this post, doctor!