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Hopefully, you routinely wash your hands after using the toilet, before eating and preparing food and after sneezing. But if you think you’re getting extra protection from an antibacterial soap, you might be surprised to learn that these products offer no special prevention against germs — and may be harmful.
Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the sale of soaps that contain certain antibacterial chemicals, saying that manufacturers of the products have not proven they are safe to use long-term or more effective than ordinary soap and water.
The FDA’s action involves 19 chemicals that are ingredients in about 40 percent of soaps, including liquid hand soap and bar soap. The most common of these chemicals are triclosan, which is used mostly in liquid soap, and triclocarban, an ingredient in bar soaps.
The rule, which goes into effect next year, does not affect consumer hand sanitizers or wipes, or antibacterial products used in health care settings such as hospitals.
Some data suggests that over time, antibacterial chemicals may do more harm than good, the FDA says. The research indicates that long-term exposure to these chemicals could pose health risks, such as bacterial resistance or hormonal effects, the FDA says.
Washing with plain soap and running water remains one of the most important steps you can take to avoid getting sick and to prevent spreading germs to others, says family medicine physician Daniel Allan, MD.
Clean your hands properly
Eighty percent of all infections are transmitted through touch, but we can avoid most of them by simply washing our hands the proper way, Dr. Allan says. If you have a choice, choose warm water.
“Warm water is probably your best bet,” Dr. Allan says. “It loosens the oils and soils on your hands. Use at least a teaspoon of soap, and lather in the soap for at least fifteen seconds before you rinse well. Then dry your hands using a clean towel.”
Taking the right amount of time to wash is key, Dr. Allan says.
Research shows that most people wash their hands for less than 10 seconds, Dr. Allan says. Increasing the wash time from 15 to 30 seconds can have a huge impact — it can decrease the number of bacteria on your skin by tenfold.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) also recommends washing your wrists, around your fingernail edges and even all the way up to the forearms, as these areas tend to carry a significant amount of bacteria.
Antibacterial ingredients not necessary
Special soaps are not necessary to clean your hands, Dr. Allan says. This is because soap alone doesn’t kill bacteria. Instead, soap’s role is to loosen dirt and germs, and help the water remove them from your skin.
“Soap does not kill bacteria,” Dr. Allan says. That includes antibacterial soap.
“The illness rates are the same between people using regular soap and people using antibacterial soaps,” he says. “As long as you wash — whatever soap you use — you’re unlikely to have illness.”
If soap and water are unavailable, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, which is an effective germ-killer, Dr. Allan says. Studies have shown that within 30 seconds of use, a hand sanitizer kills 99 percent of the bacteria on your hands, so it can significantly reduce your chance of getting sick.
The CDC recommends using a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.