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Antibacterial soap hype

Soap. It’s one of those wonderful things that’s super easy, or soap-er easy, to overlook. It’s kind of like air because you don’t really think about it, at least, until, you run out. Now the average household is filled with all different kinds of soap. You’ve got dish soap for the kitchen, body soap for the tub, hand soap for the skin, the most delicate handmade soap and more. But what exactly is this stuff, and where does it come from?

Not the soap tree, that’s what I thought. Soap making is an ancient concept, and recipes for soap date as far back as Babylonia, around 2800 BCE, and civilizations around the world have been making soap for thousands of years, but this wasn’t necessarily the stuff that you’d recognize in the supermarket. These early soaps were made by mixing animal and vegetable fats, along with all sorts of oils and salts. And while the particulars may have changed, the basic technique still depends on the same soap principles. See, true soap is essentially a combination of an acid and a base. Now, the acid is fat, in fact.

It’s fatty acids plus triglycerides, and the base is sodium hydroxide. And when these ingredients are combined, the saponification reaction occurs. Fatty acids separate from the triglycerides and fuse with hydroxide ions, forming a salt that we call soap. When you’re washing something, soap is doing two things. First, it’s decreasing the surface tension of the water. Second, it’s binding to dirt, oil, and bacteria.

Soap contains a chain of connected hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen atoms. Now let’s look at this chain. One end is lipophilic, meaning that it’s attracted to oils, and the other end is hydrophilic, or attracted to water. So when you’re lathering up, the lipophilic ends of these chains pick up grease and oils on your skin. Then when you rinse, the hydrophilic ends of the molecules follow the water.

This means that you can rinse the soap and the attached gunk down the drain. Water alone can’t get all this junk off, because water doesn’t mix with oil. Sure, it can wash dirt off your skin by sheer force, but it’s surprisingly ineffective when it comes to removing oily buildup. There are numerous different kinds of soaps, and they aren’t all the same. Soap makers may prefer one type of fat or oil over another, and many consumers prefer the scent, feel, or property of a particular soap brand. But across the board, one of the most popular claims for modern soap is that it’s antibacterial.

About 75% of liquid soaps in American grocery stores show the word on their packaging, and it seems that companies are continually adding antibacterial products to their lineup. But it might not be as effective as we’d all like to think. Those antibacterial components, often things like triclosan, or triclocarban, need time to work.

In order for their antibacterial properties to really get a fighting chance, you’ll need to leave this stuff on a surface for about two minutes. And, as you might guess, a lot of people just aren’t that patient. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also notes that antibacterial soap is not necessary, but thoroughly washing your hands with warm water and regular soap is one of the most effective ways to ward off infection. And not be a gross person.

So what do you think about all this antibacterial soap hype? Do you think that we’re using too much of it? Let us know in the comments below. Image taken from dobremylo

Marvin Andrews