The worldwide spread of COVID-19 understandably has scores of people reconsidering their everyday cleaning habits. It’s tempting to reach for what appears to be the strongest possible cleaning product available, which might lead you to wonder if you need to be washing your hands with soap that specifically says “antibacterial.” Will using an antibacterial hand soap be more effective at fighting the novel coronavirus?
Antibacterial vs. regular soap
Antibacterial soap is not any more beneficial at destroying COVID-19 than regular hand soap. Why and what’s the difference between the two in the first place?
Antibacterial soap “contains extra chemicals designed to kill or inhibit the replication of bacteria,” explains Kasey Nichols, NMD, the medical contributor for RAVEReviews.org. That sounds good, but it turns out that all those chemicals don’t actually provide any extra power when it comes to fighting viruses. “Antibacterial soaps target bacteria, and coronavirus is a virus. So an antibacterial soap is unnecessary,” says Morton Tavel, MD, clinical professor emeritus of medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine.
Even when not just dealing with the coronavirus, antibacterial soap isn’t any more beneficial than regular soap. The Government of Canada says antibacterial soap “is not necessary for safe, effective hand hygiene.” Regular soap gets the job done—even when that job is killing the novel coronavirus.
(Also, here are household products that kill coronavirus.)
How does soap kill the virus?
You might still be skeptical. After all, this virus is so nefarious that it’s easy to doubt that just plain soap could negate it. Well, fortunately, it can!
Technically, “soap is not designed to kill germs on contact, but rather to wash germs away,” explains Dr. Tavel. Essentially, soap does what water can’t—it breaks down the fatty membrane that viruses have around them, causing the whole virus to break down. That membrane repels plain water similarly to the way oil does. Introduce soap and its ingredients, called surfactants, which attracts the contents of the membrane, causing it to break down. “The surfactants in soap lift up and break apart dirt and microbes from your skin, and the friction of rubbing your hands together helps remove the particles so they get washed down the drain,” Dr. Tavel explains.
This process takes time, which is why it’s so important to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. Pair regular soap with the thorough washing of your hands, and viruses are removed from your hands and washed away—no fancy chemicals needed.
(You’re washing your hands regularly—but are you cleaning your cell phone?)
Is antibacterial soap dangerous?
Well, the jury’s still out on that subject. But the Government of Canada has definitely found a valid cause for concern when it comes to using antibacterial soap. One of the most common antibacterial agents is triclosan, which has been shown in some animal trials to alter hormone function. Its effects have undergone investigation from both the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
That’s not all. “There has also been concern surrounding whether or not antibacterial soap chemicals are causing bacteria to become more resistant to these chemicals and other antibacterial drugs,” Dr. Nichols explains. Basically, the very bacteria that these soaps are supposed to kill might instead be evolving to become stronger and fight them.
Unless you’re someone who already buys antibacterial soap, you don’t have to worry about these concerns—because antibacterial soap isn’t more helpful against the virus anyway! So stick to regular liquid and bar soaps. And, of course, make sure you’re taking the most important step to prevent the virus: properly washing your hands. Wash for 20 seconds, making sure to scrub everywhere, including the backs of your hands and between your fingers.
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