Is Antibacterial Soap Handy Or Harmful?

Every once in a great while we’re given the opportunity to share something that could actually help the planet even if just one in ten people who read our blog put it into practice (like toting reusable shopping bags or collecting rainwater in a barrel). And this, my friends, is one of those times. Please feel free to pass this info on to your friends and family members!

And who do we have to thank for this wealth of information that just might change the world as we know it (or at least change your impact on the planet from this day forward)? Why none other than my über intelligent little brother Dan (also affectionately known as Almost-Doctor Dan):


Remember when we introduced him here (and revisited his giant brain here)? As a little refresher, he went to Cornell and graduated with the highest GPA of his entire graduating class (a 4.21 if you’re wondering). Yup, out of all of the kids in Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, he was the Valedictorian. Now he’s a graduate student at Columbia with a Master’s degree under his belt, steadily working his way up to his Doctorate in chemistry with a full scholarship from the National Science Foundation. Not only do they pay for his education but they actually pay him a stipend for rent and food- all in return for wearing a lab coat almost 24/7 and messing around with molecules and polymers all day. Sweet deal huh? Serious Einstein stuff going on.

Anyway, so on a recent phone convo we got to talking about the impending flu season and all the gross germs that seem to be swirling around more and more these days (thanks so about a million media stories on the subject) and Dan shared something so unbelievable that we just had to pass it on. In short, we learned that the idea of antibacterial soap is a marketing ploy that’s actually terrible for the environment. Here’s Almost-Doctor Dan to break things down for us:

What makes most “antibacterial soaps” antibacterial is a chlorinated aromatic compound called Triclosan. By itself this compound doesn’t appear toxic to humans, but every time you wash your hands this stuff is ending up in wastewater and eventually making its way into the environment. Think about how quickly you go through a bottle of hand soap and realize that every last drop of it ends up going down the drain. You’ve got millions of people across the country using this and it’s ending up in lakes, streams, oceans etc (where it’s not particularly biodegradable by the way).

If it were really keeping people from getting sick, perhaps an argument could be made that this is an acceptable consequence, but it really isn’t necessary! Bacteria and viruses can’t penetrate healthy, intact skin. The only way that pathogenic bacteria on your hands can make you sick is if you eat something or touch a mucous membrane (your eyes, nose, mouth, etc); up until that point they are basically harmless and loosely attached to your skin.

And to remove them from your skin before you eat or touch a mucous membrane, any soap that you use will not only dislodge bacteria from your hands but will likely kill it as well by disrupting its cell membranes. This is why the whole idea of an ‘antibacterial soap’ is just plain silly – any type of soap in and of itself will cleanse your hands of bacteria. Unless you work in an environment that requires truly sterile hands (a hospital for example) the use of these antibacterial soaps is a waste of money and resources as well as a bane to the environment.

Is that not the most interesting thing you’ve heard all day? Well, we thought it was, and we couldn’t believe that companies are slapping the old “antibacterial” claim on their bottles to encourage people to purchase them when in fact they’re doing the world more harm than good (and regular old soap and water does the same thing without the environmental harm!). By no means do we mean to be preachy, but we just had to pass this info along in the hopes that even a few other households might adopt an anti-antibacterial approach and keep tons of damaging pollutants from permeating lakes, rivers, and oceans over time (can you imagine how much of a difference this new approach could make if just ten people changed the type of soap that they purchase over the next ten years?).

We also got a letter from another Almost-Doctor (Kristin who’s currently getting her PhD in Germany) who actually works with bacteria on a day-to-day basis. Here’s what she has to say on the subject:

Bacteria, in general, live nearly everywhere. The vast majority is harmless, some are even beneficial. Even when you wash your hands with antibacterial/disinfectant soaps, the remaining bacteria grows back to their normal number within hours or a day. And as I mentioned, some bacteria are actually beneficial. For example, microbiologists who have to use antibacterial disinfectants on their hands several times a day often suffer from skin damage because the beneficial bacterial skin flora is destroyed (and skin damage can make you more susceptible to getting sick while healthy intact skin is usually impervious to germs).

When cleaning we should think of bacteria as a normal part of our environment, not as something that should be completely destroyed. It is impossible to get rid of bacteria completely, and there is no need to. Too much antibacterial disinfection in households can even become dangerous – the more disinfectants that we use, the higher the possibility is that strain of bacteria will become resistant. In addition, some scientists think a too clean environment facilitates allergies – your immune system has to be trained constantly.

Water with soap kills or washes off 99% of all bacteria. If you do not want to use too much soap, or any at all, you can even use a microfiber cloth with water only – the small fibers will collect most of the bacteria and the towel can be washed in hot water to naturally disinfect it afterwards (which destroys the microbes). These two methods of hand washing are completely sufficient for a normal household with healthy people.

So there you have it. Two insanely smart science-minded brainiacs on separate continents who agree on one thing: lose that antibacterial stuff and wash you hands thoroughly with good old fashioned soap and water to kill germs just as well and do a serious solid to Mother Nature while you’re at it. John and I are big fans of Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castille Soap (the almond scent is our favorite). It’s sold at Target among other places and it’s made with organic oils and even stored in a 100% post-consumer recycled plastic bottle. Basically, if you’re looking to replace your antibacterial soap and want some extra credit, this stuff is about as pure as they come (it’s certified fair trade and plant-based so it won’t hurt lakes, streams, rivers and oceans in the least). And so ends our little soap diatribe. Here’s to our health this fall! And the planet’s health too.

Need more of a reference than two almost doctors? Check out what the Center For Disease Control has to say on the subject here and here (hint: they agree with the braniacs above).


  1. says

    My mother is a nurse. Her motto is “What doesn’t kill you…well, you’re fine. Here’s a bandaid.”

    We’ve never used antibacterial…well…anything! My mother does at work, but not at home or anything. It’s overkill!

  2. Katie says

    Thank you SO MUCH for posting this! This is something I’ve believed for a long time, mostly because of almost-Dr.-Kristin’s reasoning that using antibacterial soaps creates more resistant super-germs. There’s also evidence that being exposed to the germs creates a healthier immune system (here’s one article to that effect: I hadn’t thought about the effects of the soap on the environment, though, so thanks for pointing that out. I love that you guys use your platform to actually make the world a little better-decorated and a little healthier :)

  3. Meredith says

    Wow! Very interesting! I learned that Triclosan was bad news a few years ago so stopped using antibacterial soap but I had no idea about the impact on the environment.

    I was wondering, what does Almost-Doctor Dan think about Purell-type hand sanitizers? I have a 2 1/2 year-old and I find myself sanitizing her hands in locations without soap and water all the time, like when she’s desperate for a snack at a park without a bathroom.

    Thanks! :)

    • says

      Hey Meredith & Wendy,

      Here’s Almost-Doctor Dan’s take on that subject:

      I don’t know a lot about hand sanitizers like Purell, but they seem to fall in the category of ‘probably unnecessary’ but not that bad. Again a lot of people have this idea that bacteria on their hands is some terrible thing – as long as you’re not putting your hands in your mouth/eyes/nose it really doesn’t matter (and even if you are, most bacteria is not damaging in any way). Depending on what they have in them they might dry out your skin (which can open you up to a bacterial invasion as opposed to supple healthy skin which is impervious to the stuff) but since you’re not actually washing anything off of your hands it’s unlikely to hurt the environment.

      The verdict: good old non-antibacterial soap and water is still the best method, but it’s probably not the worst thing to do in a pinch. Hope it helps!


  4. Wendy says

    I had heard that for awhile about soaps… but does the same thing apply to the hand sanitizers like Purell? =) It would make sense if so, but I’m curious. Thanks!

  5. says

    THANKS for posting this! I’ve been wondering what the hype was about not using antibacterial soap but didn’t really understand the details. Now it makes total sense and (at least for the hubs and I) there’s no reason to be using it.

  6. candace says

    Thank you for the info…I’m buying eco soaps from now on!
    Cheers to being green and making a difference!

  7. L says

    On a somewhat similar note, here’s another question:

    I know you guys advocate using ‘green’ cleaning products however I’m very hesitant about using something non-antibacterial in the kitchen. We eat a lot of chicken so I felt uncomfortable using an organic product to clean the counter after preparing it. Also, what about washing your hands with antibacterial soap after handling raw chicken? Necessary or not?

    • says

      Hey L,

      Good question! Both Almost-Doctor Dan and Almost-Doctor Kristin agree that even when handling food like raw chicken, good old regular soap and water is completely reliable when it comes to rinsing germs right off your hands. And the same goes for wiping down the counter (even super natural products that are 100% homemade like tea-tree oil have antibacterial properties without being damaging) so you can rest assured that any eco cleansers have ingredients to sanitize extremely well, they’re just more natural instead of being man-made. In fact stay tuned for a step-by-step breakdown for whipping up some DIY cleansers that totally shine up the house without fumes or damaging chemicals. Hope it helps!


  8. kelly says

    Thank you so much for having a blog entry about this important subject! You have such a large audience and hopefully becoming more educated will affect their choices and maybe you just got some people to change behaviors that our bad for our planet! I was a fisheries biologists/freshwater ecologist and know all too well how so many things humans use daily end up in our water, destroying its quality and aquatic life.

  9. Kari says

    I love this article! I’m one of the few people I know that refuse to use antibacterial soap (unless I just touched chicken or am contagious). I went to a nerdy math and science camp when I was in 8th grade (yeah, this was a decade ago, but it stuck with me) where we learned about what germs get on your hands after you potty. First of all, no matter the amount of tp you use, you still are germy, so WASH! Second of all, you’re not so germy that your skin might fall off…we learned that using warm water only for about 15-30 seconds was the MOST effective manner of washing hands.

    At home I have soap in the kicthen and bathroom that is antibacterial, but it only gets used during times that the husband or I have some sort of contagious illness or just handled meat in the raw.

    Great, great post, youngsters!!

    P.S. now is one of those times that I’m contagious and this morning I got to thinking about how anal we all are about not getting coughed on, but we all breathe…so I’m curious to know how many more germs come spilling out when I cough versus when I just breathe through my mouth (because right now breathing through the nose is impossible…thank you, head cold)…if you find out an answer to that, please share!!

  10. says

    I actually knew this, and have stopped buying anti-bac soaps. I think this is also a leading contributor to the increase in allergies that we have seen in recent years (food and environmental) We are too secluded from our natural environment that our immune system doesn’t know how to deal with any foreign substance anymore!

  11. Sarah says

    We were just talking about this last week in my Bio class. It’s kindof scary isn’t it. We don’t use antibacterial soap either. We have been using Dr. Bronner’s Tea-Tree castile for a few years now. I add a small amount of soap to water in my foaming soap dispenser. A little goes a long way. Tea tree oil has natural anti-bacterial properties, so I also add tea-tree EO to my daily shower spray that I make and homemade cleaning solutions.

  12. Sara says

    Thank you so much for bringing attention to these important issues!!! I have heard this before and always try to buy regular soap…but sometimes it’s hard to find. It seems like everything these days is anti-bacterial!

  13. Caitlin P. says

    can we get a post on this Dr. Bronner’s soap? I’ve been seeing it everywhere but I really don’t understand what it’s for, and the bottle itself doesn’t have any instructions. Is it hand soap? Dish soap? Laundry soap? Floor soap? Thanks!

    • says

      Hey Caitlin,

      The answer is simple: it’s all of the above. Dr. Bronner’s soap is perfect for hand soap (we have it in all of our liquid dispensers in the kitch and bathroom), face soap, bodywash and can even be used to make dish soap and laundry soap and floor soap (stay tuned for a post all about making homemade cleaning products coming soon). In fact we even know people who wash their hair with it (and reuse the bathwater to water their plants since it’s 100% plant based soap). Seriously the stuff is amazing. It stands to reason that anything that’s pure yet foamy is good for cleaning just about anything and we totally use it as such. Hope it helps!


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