JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Chances are, if you’ve tried to find liquid soaps or sanitizers in local supermarkets lately – particularly those products claiming to be antibacterial – you’ve come up empty. Chances are better that soap in solid bar form have been readily available.
And yet, one doctor after another tells us the bar soap is as effective, maybe even better.
“Soap and water are better because, at the end, the water rinses away all the dead stuff,” Mayo Clinic neurologist Dr. Joseph Sirven said Tuesday, pointing out that while sanitizers can destroy bacteria and viruses, those dead pathogens don’t go anywhere unless they’re rinsed away.
We spoke with other doctors too, including the head of infectious diseases at Wolfson Children’s Hospital.
“In fact, soap and water is the preferred mechanism for washing your hands and good hygiene, over even hand sanitizers,” said Dr. Mobeen Rathore, who also serves as chair of Baptist Health’s infection control committee.
It’s not that the doctors disparage antibacterial liquid soaps and sanitizers, but the physicians seem to regard those recently elusive products as a ‘plan B’ compared to washing with bar soap and warm water.
“If soap and water are not available, then you can use hand sanitizers that have at least 60 percent alcohol,” Rathore said.
So, why then is bar soap in a relatively available supply?
“It seems to be a very psychological thing, I think for sure,” said Dr. Tiffany Wells at River City OB-GYN.
“I think that people have gotten used to that type of soap in the containers,” she said, hinting at habit and convenience, “but being at home, having a bar of soap would be perfectly effective, reasonable, and typically cheaper,” Dr. Wells said, tossing in yet another virtue. “Also, less use of plastic.”
Sirven agreed about the convenience factor of portable liquid soaps.
“You can stick one in your car, stick one in your office. That you can’t easily do with a bar of soap,” he said, but maintaining that convenience doesn’t equal effectiveness. “The truth is, soap and water is still the ultimate go-to.”
Sirven went on to explain that bar soaps protect against COVID-19 because of its composition – essentially a protein surrounded by a thin layer of fat.
“You need this fat compound – that’s what the soap is – to break down that virus,” he said. “And, believe me, it will not survive that.”
Wells elaborated on that point, clarifying that in and of themselves, the antibacterial properties of some soaps have little effect on viruses.
“Antibacterial would do nothing to produce anti-viral effects. They are very different things.”
She also continued about the irony that bar soap appears to be less popular, particularly at a time of public angst about health and hygiene.
“It’s available and it’s effective,” she said, “so there’s no reason that it shouldn’t be the same level as the liquid soaps.”
I even tried to budge Dr. Rathore by giving him a hypothetical choice.
“So, in my hand I’ve got Irish Spring bar soap, I’ve got dish soap, I’ve got antibacterial hand soap. I’ve got Dove body wash, and I’ve got good old hand sanitizer,” I showed him. “If you had all of these in front of you and you needed to wash your hands for a routine hand wash, which one would you choose?,” I asked, thinking he might opt for the antibacterial liquid soap or sanitizer. He was unmoved.
“I just use soap and water,” he maintained.
“In fact, the antibacterial soaps cannot even claim that they are better than the regular soaps,” Rathore asserted.
But Rathore, Wells, and Sirven all offered the caveat that while type of soap isn’t a significant factor, the time and technique one uses when washing are.
“There’s a way of washing hands which is very important,” Rathore said.
“Taking the 20 seconds, washing all surfaces, drying appropriately,” Wells added.
“You have to make sure it goes and covers your whole hand,” Sirven echoed.
The Centers for Disease Control offers this online guide to proper handwashing.
“You can use the other things also,” Rathore refrained, “but using your regular bar of soap is just perfectly fine. It’s not that complicated.”