cleaning up

Sorry, Germophobes: You’ve Been Fooled

Washing your hands with regular soap works just fine.
Washing your hands with regular soap works just fine. Photo: Sean Justice/Getty Images

If you are generally terrified of germs, you probably gravitate toward antibacterial hand soaps: “Kills 99.9 percent of all germs!” the labels proclaim. Well, hate to break it to you, but a new study found that antibacterial soaps with the active ingredient triclosan don’t work any better at germ-slaying than regular soap.

For the research, published in the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, 16 participants had their hands coated in bacteria. Half of them washed with antibacterial soap containing 3 percent triclosan, the maximum amount permitted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and half used regular soap. After washing for 30 seconds, both soaps did the job, but the triclosan soap didn’t zap any more bacteria. The same thing happened when they treated 20 strains of bacteria with both soaps in vials.

Triclosan has been around since the ‘60s and was originally used in hospital settings. Recently, it’s come under fire: Research suggests that it’s linked to hormone disruption and could lead to antibiotic-resistant germs as it passes through the water supply. Because of these concerns, the FDA told manufacturers  in 2013 that they had to provide more data showing that triclosan was safe and more effective than regular soap in order to keep using it in products labeled as antibacterial. Several companies have swapped out triclosan for a different active ingredient, benzethonium chloride (which is in the latest Dial, Softsoap, and Lysol formulations) — but older, triclosan-containing versions are still available online.

This is far from the first study to find antibacterial soap isn’t any better than others, but the researchers say it’s the first to compare the soaps against 20 kinds of bacteria. And while there isn’t proof that triclosan is unsafe, if it’s not any more effective — and its antimicrobial properties could make it harder to treat infections down the line — why use it at all? Soap is your friend, and so is alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

Sorry, Germophobes: You’ve Been Fooled