I'm hoping you can settle a debate between my wife and me. I want to use diluted eco-friendly dish soap (e.g., Seventh Generation) to wash my hands, while my wife prefers antibacterial hand soap. I want to avoid the triclosan in her preferred soap, while she says that my dish soap has other nasties that aren't good for the hands. What do you recommend for economical hand soap?
–Toshi in Oakland, California
Antibacterial hand soap is unnecessary for healthy people, and does no more to protect you from bacteria than washing with ordinary soap, according to publications by the American Medical Association and the Centers for Disease Control and research at several universities. It doesn’t even kill all that many germs in the typical five-second hand washing, because it takes longer than that for it to sabotage bacteria. Frankly, the most effective thing about bacterial soap is its marketing, which has whipped up a raging bacteriophobia. Lysol, for one, has now ratcheted up the terror of germs with a new device that excretes its germ-killing soap without your even having to touch that allegedly filthy little pump knob on top, which the commercials show crawling with bacteria. We moderns smugly joke about those medieval scholars debating how many angels could occupy the head of a pin, but the hazards of germs on the plunger of a plastic soap bottle are almost as fictitious, while lacking the charm of the pin’s imaginary inhabitants.
Seventh Generation’s dishwashing soap is safe and claims to be hypoallergenic, so it probably won’t bother your hands. If it did, you could always discontinue using it. Besides, it comes in a 90 percent recycled plastic bottle. By contrast, triclosan, the common agent in antibacterial soap (and many other household and health and beauty-aid products) may be a hormone disrupter that can cause thyroid problems, according to some studies. Of course manufacturers counter with their own studies indicating that it’s safe and effective, but as always, your best bet when there are contradictory findings about a chemical is that old precautionary principle: “Better safe than sorry.”
There is also some concern that antibacterial soaps may breed stronger bacteria, just as overuse of antibiotics in animals and humans has evolved bacteria that can resist antibiotics to the point where the medications are no longer effective.
Finally, since you asked about “economical”: Depending on your personal habits, a bar of cheap, simple soap with minimal additives and scents will give you more hand washes per dollar than the liquid variety—at least according to a test I ran in my independent laboratory. Plus, the simple paper packaging of bars is obviously more sustainable than those plastic bottles and pumps.