Illustration: Kieran Blakey

The Nuance

Are Antibacterial Soaps More Effective Than Regular Soap?

What you need to know about the germ-blocking abilities of products labeled antibacterial

Elemental
Published in
5 min readApr 16, 2020

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Even during a typical cold-and-flu season, public health officials bang the drum about the importance of proper hand-washing technique. And in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the nitty-gritty elements of hand hygiene have taken on an added layer of life-and-death significance.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) puts thorough hand-cleaning at the top of its list of helpful measures that everyone should take to slow the spread of Covid-19. But the CDC does not specify the type of soap people should use. Those concerned consumers who go shopping for soap may wonder whether products labeled “antibacterial” offer virus-blocking abilities above and beyond plain-old soap.

“We don’t know, is the short answer,” says Donald Schaffner, a microbiologist and distinguished professor at the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences.

When applied to soap, the term “antibacterial” is a little misleading. An antibacterial soap contains one or more ingredients deemed by federal regulators to have antiseptic properties, which means the ingredient in question has been shown to kill or otherwise prevent the spread of illness-causing bacteria or other microscopic pathogens. And that includes viruses.

For a 2011 research review published in the Journal of Food Protection, Schaffner and his colleagues looked at the existing studies comparing antibacterial soaps to plain soap. “We found that antibacterials were slightly more effective than bland soaps,” he says. He explains that neither was 100% effective at killing or clearing away germs, but the antibacterial soaps consistently outperformed the plain soap — albeit by small margins — when it came to getting rid of pathogens.

As long as a person is taking the time to thoroughly work soap into the hands’ nooks and crannies, standard soap will get the job done.

His study was looking at bacteria, not viruses. But he and others say it’s…

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Markham Heid
Elemental

I’m a long-time contributor at TIME and other media orgs. I write mostly about health. I grew up in Michigan, but these days I live in southwest Germany.