Does Antibacterial Soap Work?

Here’s a soap opera for you: This week, the Food and Drug Administration proposed a new rule targeted at companies that manufacture antibacterial soap and body washes, requiring them to prove that their products are actually more effective than plain old soap and water at stopping the spread of infection or illness.

The problem: They’re not. We’ve been reporting on this topic for years—but still, close to half of soaps sold in this country contain antimicrobial agents—even though according to the American Medical Association there’s absolutely no reason to buy antibacterial soaps.

In fact, the AMA argues that you shouldn’t: Antibacterial soaps could do more harm than good—by making bacteria stronger and more resistant to existing germ killers, they say.

Other research suggests that active ingredients packed in these cleansers—like triclosan (a pesticide) or triclocarban—could have negative health effects on your hormones, and that these soaps may actually break down your body’s natural defenses against some cancer-causing agents.

To drive the point home, know this: Most illnesses are caused by germs and viruses, not by bacteria, says Stuart Levy, M.D., a microbiologist at Tufts. That means antibacterial soap really isn’t any better than the regular stuff, he says.

So while soap companies scramble, stick to the regular stuff, but don’t skip the sink! Some research suggests that 30 percent of Americans do. But scrubbing your hands—even without soap and then drying them with paper towel—is about twice as effective as running out the door.

To do it right, lather up, wash for 20 seconds—about how long it takes to sing “Happy Birthday”—and focus on your fingertips, where many of the germs reside.

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