Are Natural Bar Soaps Hygienic?
When I meet people and tell them that I own an organic skincare company the discussion often leads to questions about "bar" soaps. So many people tell me that they would love to switch to a natural soap to get rid of the chemicals and the plastic bottles.
So what is stopping them? Some people believe that bars of natural soap are less hygienic than liquid soap.
So, are bar soaps hygienic? Of course, for me, the answer is YES!
The strange thing is that when I was a little girl (a long time ago) we had one bathroom and one bar of soap that was shared by the entire family. We never thought anything of it and we seldom got sick.
Human skin has a natural microbiome that contains thousands of different bacteria, fungi, and viruses that do not cause negative health consequences for those with an intact immune system because they are part of our bodies. As a matter of fact, this microbiome helps keeps our skin healthy.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word hygienic means, "Conducive to maintaining health and preventing disease, especially by being clean; sanitary." It may seem like an odd question to ask whether something specifically created to help make you clean is hygienic, but actually, it is a very good question.
It makes sense that the microbes of your natural microbiome plus the oils and dead skin cells on your hands will get passed on to everything you touch. Numerous studies have shown that we transfer this bacteria to our cell phones, keyboards, remote controls, doorknobs, faucets, liquid soap dispensers, light switches, shower heads, washcloths, towels, and yes even our soap bars.
The bacteria on your soap bar are less of a problem than the bacteria you pick up from other places on your hands.
The germs from your body's natural microbiome that remain on a bar of soap in your home have no negative health effects because they are coming from you. Your body has adapted to live with its natural microbial environment.
Even if you are sharing a soap bar with a family member that lives in your home, your bodies have most likely adapted because you share many of the same microorganisms.
Numerous studies have shown that although bacteria levels on a used bar of soap are slightly higher than on unused soaps, there are no detectable levels of bacteria left on the skin's surface after using a bar of soap.
J. E. Heinze and F. Yackovich published a study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Infection in 1988 in which they inoculated the surface of soap bars with extra bacteria so that the bacterial count was 70 times that of a typical used soap bar.
After a group of people washed their hands with the high bacteria soap, there were no detectable levels of the bacteria on the surface of their skin. The study concluded there was no evidence of bacteria transfer from the soap to your hands. (It is worth noting that the makers of Dial soap, a company that makes both bar and liquid soap, paid for this research.)
The idea that the bacteria on a bar of soap are not transferred to your skin may seem odd, but consider that washing with a bar of soap is not like drying off with a towel or touching a faucet.
First of all, as you place your soap bar under the faucet to create lather--you are actually washing off the surface of the soap.
Then when you lather up with soap the oil-attracting end picks up greasy dirt and oils on your skin and when you rinse, the water-attracting end allows you to rinse away the soap and impurities. When you towel dry or touch a light switch or faucet, any bacteria you transfer remains there.
Just a side note, research carried out at the University of Arizona in 2014 by Charles Gerba demonstrated that towels may be the most contaminated item in your home because they are used often and they retain moisture for a long period of time, which helps bacteria breed.
Bacteria do not like to live in the actual soap bar, they are attracted to water that sits on top of the soap. So if you are still concerned, doing a couple of simple things will help your bar soap harbor fewer germs.
Allow Your Natural Soap to Dry: Store soap out of the water and allow it to dry between uses to get rid of the moist environment that germs enjoy. If you take lots of showers consider using a couple of soap bars and alternating them to allow enough drying time between each use.
- Rinse Your Soap: If your soap is not dry, rinse it under running water before lathering up to get rid of the wet outer surface.
Is Liquid Soap Hygienic?
When considering which type of "soap" to use for you and your family the choice is between a bar and a liquid in a bottle. So my question is . . . how hygienic is liquid soap?
As I mentioned above, bacteria do not like to live in a soap bar, they like the water on the surface which can be rinsed away. But what is the first and most abundant ingredient in liquid soap? Yes, it is water!
Now let's consider your liquid soap dispensers: How often do you clean the top of your liquid soap dispenser?
A few more notes about liquid soaps:
- Because the first ingredient is water, liquid soaps need a synthetic preservative to prevent germ growth. These preservatives do not always work. They can break down over time, they may not be formulated properly and sometimes manufacturers will dilute the liquid soap to increase profits. Thus, even with these preservatives, there have been a number of liquid soap recalls by the FDA due to contamination with disease-causing bacteria.
- Public bathrooms usually do not usually use bar soap, but microbiologists have discovered that a quarter of the liquid soaps and dispensers in public restrooms are so contaminated with high concentrations of nasty bacteria that even after washing, your hands are actually less clean than before washing. Especially beware of the refillable type liquid soap dispensers in public restrooms (rather than ones that have a replaceable single-use soap pouch) since they are usually not cleaned when refilled and are loaded with bacteria including many that cause disease.
Be cautious even if the commercial liquid soaps contain antibacterial agents that are designed to inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria. Many scientists believe that the effectiveness of these antibacterial agents may be compromised because:
- the chemicals break down over time
- you have no idea how old the liquid soap is
- sometimes the products get diluted in order to save money
Liquid body washes are made with synthetic detergents, fragrances, and preservatives that provide no benefits to our bodies and are harmful to the environment.
Obviously, I am natural "bar soap" biased!
I even carry a little muslin bag or tin with small one-time-use soap scraps to use in public bathrooms. (Another great reason to purchase our Scrap Sacks when they are available)
I never doubted the cleanliness of a natural soap bar, but after all of my research on liquid soaps and soap dispensers, I am now more convinced than ever--I will take a natural bar of soap over liquid soap any day.