Is It a Wash? Antibacterial VS Regular Soap

Photograph of Child Washing Hands courtesy of Rob Monroe
Photograph of Petri Dish Courtesy of Ruth Rogers

Should you use antibacterial or “regular” soap to wash your hands? Should you use soap at all? I had a teacher in medical school who believed that rinsing hands was as good as using soap. Wrong! Studies show that just rinsing with water may get rid of some superficial dirt, but doesn’t get rid of germs.

So if you have to use soap to remove germs, should you use antibacterial or “regular” soap?

If you are simply trying to prevent the spread of viruses such as rhinoviruses or influenza (cold and flu viruses), regular soap and water work just fine. The additional benefit is that regular soap and water washing does not encourage the development of resistant strains of bacteria.

Most healthcare workers SHOULD use antibacterial soap, because this prevents the spread of bacterial infections. Some important hospital acquired infections include methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus, Clostridium difficile and (yikes!) vancomycin resistant Enterococcus. The concern, of course, is that using antibacterial soap will cause more resistant bacterial strains to develop.

These are very scary infections, because they represent highly virulent (hardy, infectious) bacteria which have developed in response to exposure to standard antibiotics. These strains require super antibiotic therapy to treat. Some strains are resistant to all known antibiotics. Healthcare workers definitely want to prevent the spread of these strains to other patients, themselves and other contacts (e.g. our family members!).

The other option when soap and water is not readily available is to use alcohol gel. It prevents the spread of bacteria and viruses. The only exception is to Clostridium difficile (Yikes again!), which is resistant to the alcohol gel.

Remember, hand washing is the most effective way to prevent the spread of any infections. Twenty seconds (Sing Happy Birthday twice while washing) of vigorous hand washing, including the fingernails (which harbor a lot of bacteria) is needed to effectively remove germs from the hands.

And don’t forget the web spaces between the fingers, which are commonly missed areas during handwashing.

Last updated May 2, 2010 by Dr. Vee

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