Antibacterial Soap vs. Regular Soap: How to Choose the Right Product for You

By Liz Thompson in Natural Products

Shopping for soap may seem pretty straightforward. But this task can become confusing when you encounter words such as "antibacterial" on product labels. What's the difference between antibacterial soap vs. regular soap, and how do antibacterial ingredients work?

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there isn't sufficient evidence to show that over-the-counter (OTC) antibacterial soaps are any better at preventing illness than washing with good old-fashioned soap and water. Discover the different types of soap available today and how to demystify cleansing product labels.

Antibacterial Soap vs. Regular Soap: What's the Difference?

You are probably wondering, how does soap work to kill germs? The short answer: it doesn't.

Washing your hands with regular soap and water mechanically removes germs from your skin. According to the Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, soap molecules have both polar (able to mix with water) and nonpolar (not able to mix with water) properties. This gives soap the ability to dissolve most types of molecules, which are then rinsed off the skin with water.

You are probably most concerned with washing illness-causing germs from your skin. Soap offers a one-two punch in this arena. First, it loosens bacteria from the skin. Then, since you tend to wash your hands longer when using soap, the germs are more effectively rinsed away.

Antibacterial soaps, on the other hand, are intended to kill bacteria on the skin. Antibacterial ingredients were initially created for use in medical settings, such as hospitals, where germs are rampant and taking antibacterial measures is of the utmost importance. Now, antibacterial ingredients can be found in many OTC soaps at your local supermarkets and drugstores.

How Does Soap Work?

Potential Concerns with Antibacterial Soap

Antibacterial soap is simply regular soap with an antibacterial agent—such as triclosan—added to the mix, according to Harvard Medical School. These ingredients became popular because manufacturers viewed them as an extra measure of protection against bacteria.

This may make antibacterial soap seem like the way to go, but it's important to understand the potential concerns with using antibacterial ingredients. As the FDA states, overuse of antibacterial ingredients may lead to an increase in drug-resistant bacteria, causing bacteria normally found on the skin to become resistant to these ingredients. Second, according to Harvard University, these antibacterial ingredients are, as the name implies, used to rid the skin of bacterial germs and generally have no effect on viral germs.

The Status of Antibacterial Soap Ingredients Today

While there are still plenty of hand cleansers on the market that contain antibacterial ingredients, on September 6, 2017, the FDA banned the use of nineteen antibacterial ingredients commonly found in over-the-counter soaps, including triclosan and triclocarban.

Because manufacturers failed to prove that the ingredients were both safe for long-term use and are more effective than regular soap and water, they are no longer allowed to market antibacterial soaps that include these ingredients.

Consider Natural Soap

One simple way to choose soap products that cleanse your skin of bacteria without the use of antibacterial agents is to select liquid and bar soaps made with naturally derived soap ingredients.

For instance, sodium cocoate derived from coconut oil may be used in bar soaps to help cleanse skin. And you might find caprylyl/capryl glucoside derived from corn and coconut or palm kernel oil in liquid soaps to decrease loss of moisture on the skin.

Soaps with naturally derived ingredients work just as well as soaps made with synthetic ingredients. Whether you choose bar soap or liquid soap, be sure to use proper handwashing technique to best rid your skin of germs.

Woman Holding Tom's of Maine Soap

Learn more about switching to natural products on the Naturally Good Products board by @tomsofmaine on Pinterest.

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Why It's Good

Natural soap products offer a way to cleanse skin of dirt and bacteria with naturally derived ingredients you can feel good about using.