Is Antibacterial Soap Bad? Here's What to Use Instead | Branch Basics

By Marilee Nelson |

Is Antibacterial Soap Bad? Here's What to Use Instead | Branch Basics

Is antibacterial soap bad? In a word, yes (even the new triclosan-free formulas).

Not only are antibacterial hand soap ingredients hazardous to human and environmental health, but according to the FDA, they are completely unnecessary to achieve healthy, germ-free hands. 

Yet, antibacterial soaps are still a favorite among consumers seeking a healthy home free of harmful germs.

If you’re on the fence about whether the benefits of antibacterial soap outweigh the risks, this article will help. 

Here, we’ll cover why antibacterial hand soap is not worth the money, why its ingredients are toxic, and what to use instead.

Why Antibacterial Soap Is Worth Skipping

The FDA, CDC, OSHA, and other health organizations all agree antibacterial soap is not more effective than regular soap and water in preventing the spread of germs.

What’s worse, these soaps are harmful to people, wildlife, aquatic systems, septic systems, and the planet as a whole.

Regular Soap Is Just As Effective

As we’ve covered in previous articles, the FDA has concluded, after over 40 years of research, that regular soap is more effective at removing germs than antibacterial soap.

That’s because the ingredients in regular soaps break down and remove bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other harmful germs without killing the beneficial germs our skin needs to stay healthy.

That’s right! Your skin has its own microbiome, known as the dermal microbiome, a complex network of beneficial bacteria and germs that protect the skin’s barrier and help defend against harmful germs. 

So, we want to avoid unnecessary products that disrupt this delicate balance, like antibacterial soaps.

Related read: Antibacterial Soap vs. Regular Soap: Which Should I Choose?

They Contain Harmful Chemicals 

All soaps and body washes have the potential to contain harmful ingredients, but antibacterial soaps are in a class of their own.

For example, in 2016, the FDA banned 19 chemicals commonly found in antibacterial soaps because manufacturers could not prove their safety and effectiveness. 

This was a big win for consumers and the environment, and we applaud the FDA for their actions. 

However, as is often the case, these chemicals were quickly replaced with other harmful chemicals with unknown or even documented harmful effects, including:

Benzalkonium Chloride

This ingredient, which is a quaternary ammonium compound (also known as Quats or Quacs), replaced the nefarious and now-banned triclosan in most brands of antibacterial hand soaps. 

However, research suggests it may have similar negative effects, including:

  • Creating a breeding ground for superbugs and antibiotic-resistant bacteria
  • Being highly irritating to the skin and eyes
  • Acting as a skin sensitizer/allergen
  • Producing genotoxic effects in plant and mammalian cells were observed in vitro for concentrations as low as 1 mg/liter, which is lower than those reported to be found in the environment
  • Being considerably toxic to cells at low concentrations
  • Being highly toxic to aquatic environments

Benzalkonium chloride, like all Quats, is not typically removed by wastewater management processing, making it a persistent environmental chemical. 

More research is needed to fully understand its environmental effects, which is likely bleak given the historical data on persistent antibacterial chemicals, like triclosan, in the environment.

Chloroxylenol (PCMX)

This ingredient has now been banned in over-the-counter soaps. However, like triclosan, you can still find it in some brands of soap sold on large e-commerce sites.

Also, like triclosan, its use is still allowed in oral care products, like mouthwashes prescribed for gingivitis. 

The same health and environmental concerns apply, chloroxylenol has been shown to

  • Proliferate the growth and spread of superbugs
  • Disrupt the human microbiome
  • Cause severe irritation to eyes, skin, and lungs
  • Is an asthmagen when inhaled
  • Can create allergic reactions which can range from mild to life-threatening
  • Is highly toxic to aquatic life, and a general persistent chemical disaster for the environment

    For more information on other harmful and potentially harmful ingredients in hand soaps, see: 

    What Soap Ingredients Actually Kill Bacteria? 

    Here’s the thing about soap ingredients that actually kill bacteria: most of the time, you don’t want to kill bacteria at all, you want to remove them.

    Why? Killing bacteria with antibacterial ingredients, natural or not, always has the potential to create two negative effects:

    #1: It will leave behind a small number of bacteria that will survive and mutate to become more resistant to antibacterial products. 

    This is what leads to the growth of superbugs and antibiotic resistance, which is bad for everyone!

    #2: Ingredients that kill bacteria don’t discriminate between good and bad bacteria. 

    Rather, they act like a nuke, killing all germs and bacteria in their path. 

    This spells trouble for the dermal microbiome as well as the body’s various microbial communities which rely on friendly bacteria and other germs to stay strong and defend us from disease.

    Does This Mean Sanitizers Or Disinfectants Are Never Appropriate? 

    No. Sometimes non-toxic sanitizers and disinfectants are needed, especially on surfaces.

    For example, we recommend using non-toxic disinfectants, like vodka (140 proof or 70% alcohol), peroxide or peroxide and vinegar (used separately and stored in separate bottles), in addition to removing germs with a soap-based cleaner whenever dangerous germs are present on surfaces, such as after preparing raw meat on a cutting board or surface, in bathrooms, or if someone has a contagious disease.

    The use of natural soap followed by a non-toxic disinfectant on surfaces greatly reduces the risk of leaving behind any live bacteria or germs.

    However, the FDA no longer recommends the use of antibacterial soaps on hands or body. The only exception may be in surgical or hospital settings, where germ control is paramount.

    Otherwise, you can feel perfectly safe using just natural soap and water with friction for at least 30 seconds to 1 minute to effectively remove all germs from your hands. 

    The only exception is if you’re away from home, believe you’ve been exposed to harmful germs, and only have access to hand sanitizer. In this case, it would likely be worth the risk to apply an alcohol-based sanitizer rather than nothing at all (especially if you’re going to eat or will be in contact with babies, young children, or anyone who is immune-compromised).

    This is why we love carrying Branch Basics Miniature Foaming Wash and All-Purpose in our purses and suitcases for healthy handwashing and germ removal on-the-go.

    What About Natural Antibacterial Ingredients In All-Natural Soaps?

    Good question!

    Although a product must contain an FDA-approved disinfectant at a specific concentration, such as alcohol or the other antibacterial ingredients discussed previously, to be labeled and marketed as “antibacterial”, some brands tout the power of all-natural antibacterial ingredients, like essential oils or grapefruit seed extract.

    These may be fine in small concentrations for some people and may be irritating for others.

    Plus, even natural antibacterial ingredients can disrupt the microbiome and other environments if used in high concentrations or in excess.

    Either way, as you’ve already learned, they are not necessary to achieve germ-free cleansing!

    Therefore, we recommend saving your money and opting for simple soap instead.

    What To Look For In An Effective, Non-Antibacterial Soap

    Now that you understand the whys behind avoiding antibacterial soaps, let’s look at the hows—as in, how to clean your hands effectively without antibacterial ingredients.

    This is easy. Just opt for the most natural soap you can find that won’t irritate your skin and do not contain harmful ingredients.

    Ingredients To Avoid In Non-Antibacterial Hand Soaps

    Avoiding antibacterial soap is a fantastic first step in avoiding harmful ingredients, but don’t stop there! 

    Many types of soaps contain other toxic ingredients that can be harmful to humans and the environment. And per OSHA and other reputable sources, the skin readily absorbs most chemicals it comes into contact with, in addition to what’s inhaled from vapors and fragrances.

    Here’s a short list of common ingredients to avoid in non-antibacterial soaps:

    If this seems like a lot of ingredients to avoid, that’s because it is (and no, it shouldn’t be this way!).

    This is why we highly recommend relying on consumer advocacy tools to vet products for toxicity. 

    Two of our favorites are:

    • EWG Skin Deep allows you to plug in an ingredient name and get a toxicity rating from 1 to 10 (1 being the least toxic and 10 the most toxic). 
      • We recommend only choosing products with all ingredients rated 1-2 on this app or site.
    • Think Dirty app for cleaning, skin, beauty, and personal care products 
      • We recommend products rated “0” on this app.

    These free tools are available online, or as apps, and make vetting soap, personal care, and cleaning products quick and easy.

    3 Alternatives To Antibacterial And Non-Antibacterial Hand Soap

    Ready to find some human-safe alternatives to synthetic and antibacterial soaps?

    Here are our top three recommendations for soaps for handwashing, body washing, and more.

    1. Branch Basics Gel Hand Soap

    Branch Basics Gel Hand Soap is the newest member of our MADE SAFE certified product line.

    This refillable, fragrance-free hand soap is formulated to be pH skin friendly and is perfect for the most delicate skin and sensitive individuals. It has been third party verified to not be a skin or eye irritant. Many people choose to use it as a face and body wash and for removing eye makeup.

    Branch Basics Gel Hand Soap is free from all the ingredients of concern listed above, leaves your skin silky soft, and a little goes a long way!

    Click here to read the full list of ingredients and shop our new Gel Hand Soap.

    2. Branch Basics Foaming Wash

    Foaming Washing is our original natural hand soap and body wash made using our signature Branch Basics Concentrate and water in our special Foaming Wash bottle.

    This dilution is gentle enough for frequent hand washing and can also be used as a facial cleanser, body wash, makeup and eye makeup remover, shampoo, and even a baby wash.  It has been third party verified to not be a skin or eye irritant! 

    And when you purchase a Branch Basics Starter Kit, you’ll also get everything you need to replace every cleaning product in your home with just one Concentrate—All-Purpose, Bathroom, Laundry, Streak-Free, and Foaming Wash. It’s a minimalist's dream!

    Learn more about it in: How To Get Started With Your Branch Basics Kit.

    Or click here to shop Branch Basics Starter Kits with Foaming Wash and Travel Kits.

    3. Pure Liquid Or Bar Castile Soap

    100% pure, fragrance-free castile soaps are some of the best non-toxic soap options available for hand and body washing. 

    Castile Soaps that have all ingredients rated a 1 or 2:

    Helpful Tips:

    • Liquid castile soap works best with a foaming pump vs. a traditional pump due to issues with clogging and squirting. Follow the brand’s instructions for mixing castile soap with water to create a healthy hand soap.
    • Castile bar soap is a great option for those who prefer a bar to a liquid. The bar can also be used as a shampoo bar.
    • Be sure to opt for 100% pure liquid castile soap, as not all brands are created equal.
    • We also recommend avoiding scented castile soaps, even with essential oils, as quality cannot be verified and essential oils may cause irritation to some skin types.

    Toss the Toxins With Branch Basics

    We hope this article has helped clear up confusion around antibacterial soaps, which are not necessary and can be very harmful to humans and the environment.

    Instead, ditch the antibacterial ingredients in favor of safer soaps, like Branch Basics.

    Our Made Safe Certified, cruelty-free, human-safe cleaning line was designed to replace every cleaner, laundry product, and soap in your home with one  Concentrate.

    Our Starter Kits (available in refillable plastic or glass) come with everything you need to make your own Foaming Wash, along with All-Purpose, Bathroom, Streak-Free, Laundry, and custom dilutions using just Branch Basics Concentrate plus water.

    It’s about as simple as it gets.

    If you’re only interested in hand washing, we also offer Branch Basics Gel Hand Soap, which has become an instant favorite among beauty, soap, and cleaning connoisseurs.

    For more information about Branch Basics, check out our Starter Kits and How To Get Started With Your Branch Basics Kit for a full written and video tutorial.
    Marilee Nelson

    Marilee Nelson

    Marilee Nelson is an Environmental Toxins expert who has spent nearly 30 years advocating for the chemically-sensitive and chronically-ill. She is a Board Certified Nutritionist, Certified Bau-Biologist and Bau-Biology Inspector and specializes in Food As Medicine. She has helped thousands of families and individuals identify, heal and recover from toxic exposures and is on a mission to revolutionize the way American families view their health.