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It's common knowledge that washing your hands often and well is the best way to prevent disease transmission. Just what the doctor ordered! Many of us are used to using soap during handwashing as a general rule -- you can find it in public bathrooms, it's in our homes, it's in the office kitchen, and if there’s no soap when washing our hands, most of us feel a little...disappointed. Most of us. There are some who, instead of vigorously washing their hands with soap, they prefer to run them under tap water for a few seconds, rub them, turn off the tap and keep on walking. But, before we get carried away, how much cleaner does soap make your hands? And, what does it actually do to them? Does it help with dry skin or does it make it worse?
Well, the answers to these questions are not always black and white. Is water alone effective against germs on our hands? Well, using the right washing techniques, yes it is! Is soap...more effective? Yes.
This effectiveness of water has been proven in countries where access to soap is limited. For example, in rural Bangladesh, where diarrhea among children is a common and widespread problem, scientists examined the effectiveness of four different forms of hygiene on incidences of diarrhea. Participants of the study were observed preparing dinner for their families with four different forms of hygiene:
“In households where food was prepared without washing hands, children had diarrhea in 12.5% of monthly assessments compared with 8.3% in households where one hand was washed with water only, 6.9% where both hands were washed with water only, and 3.7% where at least one hand was washed with soap. Food preparers commonly washed one or both hands with water only, but fieldworkers observed food preparers washing at least one hand with soap in only three households (1%).”
In the study, scientists point out that using water alone cut the rate of diarrhea in half. So, in short, yes, soap is definitely the better option if it is stored correctly so that it cannot become contaminated, but water alone is pretty sufficient as well.
In a time where various different types of soap are available (all natural soap, organic soap, etc) the question remains. Which kind of soap is more effective and which kind of hand soap should I keep in my household? In a head-to-head test of antibacterial and regular soap, antibacterial soap has an inherent advantage. One study has shown that a 15-second handwashing session with regular soap successfully reduced E. coli by 1.72 log10, compared to 2.90 log10 for antibacterial soap. This number doubled when the duration of the wash was duplicated. In other words, regular soap simply causes bacteria to loosen their grip on your hands, to be rinsed away. This is why using water alone still seems to work just fine, as long as you rub your hands together vigorously. However, antibacterial soap has additives that are designed to kill bacteria outright.
So, if you prefer transparent soap, hand soap with lavender fragrance or special moisturizing soap, its effectiveness against germs and bacteria largely relies on your handwashing techniques and the amount of time you actually spend washing them. However, remember that even though your hands might smell clean, that might actually not be the case. Be very wary of the ingredients in your soap! And the fact that a soap is fragrance free or makes little to no suds does not mean it is not effective against germs and bacteria. Fragrance is never equal to effectiveness.
Whatever your specific soap preferences might be, remember to wash your hands regularly and vigorously. Get rid of those germs!