How much difference does soap actually make when cleaning your hands?

cleaning hands

I think it’s fair to say that most of us understand the importance of washing our hands. This is considered to be good practice in order to keep our hands free from bacteria and other germs and is particularly important before we eat or prepare food and also after visiting the restroom.

We also tend to use some sort of cleaning product when we wash our hands – most commonly we might use soap in order to aid the cleaning process. Many people, when asked, would consider that washing their hands with water only would be completely ineffective in the removal of bacteria. But is that true?

The answer to this question may surprise some of you. In a recent study the use of various hand cleansing products was put to the test and one of these tests involved a comparison between water only cleaning and cleaning with soap.

One of the most relevant experiments within this study involved a review on a number of households and centred around the way in which families washed their hands before a meal. The results showed that in households where food was prepared without first washing hands children suffered from diarrhea in 12.5% of the assessments over a period of one month. In stark comparison, in households where the food preparer washed their hands with water only this rate was reduced to just 6.9% of cases. Finally, in households where the preparer of the meal washed at least one of their hands with soap, the rate of diarrhea was reduced to just 3.7%.

The results of this study are very interesting, of course they do answer our main question, confirming that soap is an effective product to use when cleaning our hands. They also confirm a surprising theory as well – the fact that washing our hands with water alone is also very effective in removing bacteria. This is proven by the fact that doing so can reduce the prevalence of diarrhea by a massive 5.6%. That really is quite impressive for plain old water.

The science behind soap

We should also acknowledge soap which is also a very impressive product. Using soap clearly reduces your chances of contracting an infection through bacteria passed from your hands to your mouth as well. The science behind this is also very interesting; with standard nonantimicrobial soap the product aids with cleaning only through physical removal of bacteria. In other words, rubbing the soap into your hands helps to remove bacteria by mixing in with it and then taking the bacteria with it as you wash the soap off of your hands during the rinsing process.

In the same study, tests were also carried out with nonantimicrobial soap in order to measure its effectiveness in the removal of E. coli. The results showed that this standard soap could reduce E. coli by 1.72 log10. This may not mean a great deal to anyone who is not trained in medical science, but comparing this measure to that of antibacterial – which was able to reduce E. coli by 2.90 log10 we can see that the introduction of biological compounds aids the bacteria removal a great deal.

What if your soap gets contaminated?

We all know that nothing in life is that simple, and the same is true for soap and hand washing. Despite all of the good qualities that soap holds, it has its pitfalls as well. One of the biggest dangers with soap is in the way that it is stored. Because a bar of soap remains open to the air it is also prone to attracting bacteria itself. As such, if you store soap in a damp soap dish or a similar place of storage it can also attract bacteria over time and this can render the cleansing effects of the soap to be useless.

A much better option is to use a hand wash dispenser. These are really the modern equivalent to a bar of soap and rather than the soap being in a solid form it comes in the form of a liquid. It is essentially the same product and has the same cleansing effects but because it is in liquid format it can be stored in a container that comes complete with its own dispenser. This means that the liquid always remains well stored and will not be susceptible to picking up bacteria from the environment around it. As long as you keep the dispenser clean and free from bacteria itself then the product will be far more effective than an incorrectly stored bar of soap.

Automatic hand wash dispensers

If you are very conscious about cleanliness you could even, go one step further and purchase an automatic hand wash dispenser. These dispensers have a motion sensor which will automatically dispense the correct amount of soap when you place your hand directly below it. This type of dispenser is often found in public restrooms where the prevention of contact germs being spread is even more important. The idea behind this type of dispenser is that the unit itself does not get touched – because the soap is dispensed automatically – and so germs are far less likely to spread from constant contact with the dispenser.

Beware of harmful chemicals in antibacterial soap

Just when you thought that you had the complete answer to handwashing it gets even more complicated. Although studies have proven the additional effectiveness of antibacterial soaps there are some antibacterial products out there that are not so effective. In fact, a new ruling in the US has seen the U.S. Food and Drug Administration place a permanent ban on some types of antibacterial cleaning products due to the inability of manufacturers to prove their usefulness.

The ban list includes 19 forbidden ingredients such as triclosan (used in liquid soaps) and triclocarban (used in bar soaps).

Although the FDA have introduced this ban they are actually giving manufacturers 1 year from its introduction date to remove these ingredients from their products. In the meantime, the FDA themselves have recommended that consumers use plain soap and water to clean their hands. This recommendation comes despite of the fact that antibacterial soaps have been proven to further reduce the build-up of bacteria which makes it difficult to follow if you are keep on staying clean. The alternative is to read the ingredients of hand wash products before you purchase them and just be sure to avoid those that are on the ban list.