What's the Difference Between Antibacterial Soap and Plain Soap?

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on April 21, 2022
4 min read

When you are purchasing soaps for your home, several factors come into play. You may opt to consider cost, color, brand, and other properties. 

Among these properties, should you consider whether you are purchasing antibacterial soap vs plain soap? Do you feel that one will keep your family safer? 

To date, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not found definitive evidence to show that antibacterial soaps are any better than washing with regular soap and water when it comes to preventing illness. However, depending on the setting of your use, there are still several factors to consider.

Also known as antiseptic soap or antimicrobial soap, antibacterial soaps contain certain chemicals not included in plain soap. The purpose of adding these chemicals is to reduce or prevent bacterial infection.

Water, coupled with plain soap, loosens the grip of almost all surface germs. They have properties that are polar and nonpolar, making bacteria dissolve more easily. This removes pathogens physically from a surface but does not stop their production or kill them.

Antibacterial soap, on the other hand, can be processed with a chemical called triclosan or triclocarban. This chemical is not found in plain soap. This ingredient is meant to stop the production of bacteria. 

The FDA has not yet found evidence that it is better at preventing sickness, though.

Antibacterial soaps are marketed as preventing bacterial production and killing pathogens. 

The chemical additive of antimicrobial soaps, triclosan, can be found in many places. It is added to consumer products like clothing, toys, furniture, and kitchenware to prevent contamination via bacteria. This results in long-term exposure to triclosan.

Meanwhile, in 2013, the FDA issued a ruling requiring safety data on antibacterial soaps. After research was completed, the final ruling regarding antiseptic liquids, bar soaps, body washes, foams, and liquids was that they should cease making certain claims in their marketing. This was because the products were not shown to be more effective than plain soap and water at preventing infection, and there was no proven information on the safety of exposure to antibiotic chemicals over a long period.

Generally, antibacterial soap:

  • May be recommended in healthcare settings
  • Is not needed in businesses or homes unless given by a healthcare provider
  • Is no better at killing germs on the hands or body than plain soap is
  • Must remain on skin for 2 minutes to have any effect on the surface bacteria

Plain soaps, meanwhile:

  • Can be used in non-healthcare settings
  • Are very easily obtained
  • Are less expensive than antimicrobial soaps

Some pros of antibiotic soaps are that you can find them in most stores, and they can kill dangerous bacteria. The cons, however, are that they can also kill healthy bacteria on your skin. Their added chemicals can strip natural oils and make your skin dry. Also, the use of antibacterial soap can give a false sense of cleanliness, and people may wash less frequently.

Plain soap is recommended for non-healthcare settings in the public and home unless antibacterial soap is recommended by a doctor. Antibacterial soaps are no more effective at killing germs outside of a carefully sterilized healthcare setting. 

In most cases, thorough handwashing is the determining factor in germ illness prevention. 

Liquid soap is preferred to bar soap for hand cleaning. It is easier to use and won't typically cause germs to spread from one person to another if soap is shared. Additionally, a moisturizing ingredient is often added to liquid soaps so that frequent hand washing will not dry out your skin.

Bar soaps are recommended less often because germs can grow on the surface and be easily transmitted between people. It is okay for use in the household if no one has a skin infection, but public places should not promote the use of bar soap.

Some scientists believe that the use of antibacterial soap can lead to the creation of antibiotic-resistant germs. Lab studies have suggested that the chemical triclosan contributes to bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. This could have a major effect on the future of medical treatments.

Additionally, triclosan is an ingredient that concerns many regulatory, academic, and environmental groups. Studies on animals have shown that the way in which hormones work in your body is altered by triclosan. This raises concerns about potential effects on humans. More research is needed.

As many as 95% of adults wash their hands incorrectly. The following steps will ensure that your hands are always at their cleanest:

  • Wet your hands with warm or cold water
  • Apply soap directly into your palms as per the manufacturer's recommendations
  • Scrub the palms, backs, inner spaces of the fingers, and under the nails of your hands for at least 20 seconds
  • Avoid scrubbing too hard to avoid causing cracks that could allow bacteria to enter
  • Rinse completely
  • Use a clean towel to dry the hands
  • Apply moisturizer of some type to prevent cracks from dryness

A hand sanitizer can cause people to think that they do not have to wash their hands as rigorously or as often. 

When soap and water are unavailable, the use of a hand sanitizer with 60% alcohol content can indeed be an effective alternative. Sanitizer is a good antimicrobial, but it does not eliminate all germs and is not recommended when hands have visible dirt or grease.

The CDC makes the following recommendations for adults and children regarding the use of hand sanitizer:

  • Use enough hand sanitizer so that all surfaces of the hand will be covered.
  • Rub the sanitizer over the entire hand, including fingers and fingertips.
  • Continue rubbing your hands for about 20 seconds until they are dry.