Are bar soaps hygienic?

There seems to be a myth floating around that bar soaps are less hygienic than liquid soaps, and I would have to say I very blatantly disagree with that premise.

I feel that in general, a lot of the general public still feel that quickness means betterness.

So timeliness is supported by quickness which is supported by mass consumerism.

People also get used to their habits and behaviours – when you tell someone you make artisan soaps they sometimes tend to say, sometimes in a very high and mighty way, that they only use liquid soap.

But why? What benefit does a liquid soap have?

I’ve spoken about it a lot in this blog and there is no way you can tell me that convincingly liquid soap is better than bar soap. I make soap, so I may have some bias, but I implore you to read through any research you can find, not sponsored by a consumer company, that says otherwise.

I also cook with bacon drippings so if you tried to tell me to stop doing that then it’s likely I would’ve exiled you from my existence.

So are bar soaps hygienic? Of course they are, yes, so much yes.

Funnily enough as 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 did not got sick. And my sister and I spent hours upon hours outside, playing in the dirt, or at the park with our friends. And liquid soap wasn’t really a thing then.

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. When the microbiome is damaged, then there is an increased likelihood that a person could become sick, or become irritated by something, or take on something they normally wouldn’t.

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.

So it’s natural to have this in mind when you think about using a bar of soap. We already know, and this is supported by numerous studies, that we transfer bacteria from our microbiome plus oils and dead skin cells to anything we touch, especially things like our mobile phones, keyboards, TV remotes, door handles, liquid soap dispensers, light switches, towels and yes, even soap bars.

But the bacteria on a bar of soap is not really an issue, and I will tell you why.

The germs that are left behind on a bar of soap are kind of like little bits of you. They come from your body, which you have already developed a sort of immunity to. Same as if this bar of soap is shared with another household member. You’re already germ buddies because your body compositions have made germ mates, and they get along.

To be brutally honest, the thing I would be most mindful of is a hand towel. In 2014, the University of Arizona did a research assignment that showed that towels are the most contaminated item in your home because they are used often and they retain moisture for a long time, which is what helps bacteria breed. So, when you’ve washed your hands, and then wiped them on 3 days old towel that the dog has side swiped, your husband or wife has wiped their outside hands on, then rewashed their hands, your kids have touched, or, this towel has been sitting in a combined toilet/bathroom wet area, that’s where the bacteria and issues lie.

Another research project which was published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Infection looked at a control group of subjects who were exposed to bars of soap with extra bacteria added (70 times that of a typical used soap bar). Those subjects washed their hands with the extra bacteria soap and were tested by researchers and showed that there was no evidence of bacteria transfer from the soap to their hands after washing.

It seems weird to think that the transfer back from the soap could not occur, but what you need to consider is that washing your hands with a bar of soap is not the same as touching another surface or drying your hands with a manky towel.

Let’s look at what we do when we wash our hands with a bar of soap – often we turn the water on and place the bar under the water to invigorate the creation of lather. When you lather the soap between your hands, those greasy, grimey, dirty impurities are attached to the oils in the bar, and washed away by the water which is flowing away. When you dry your hands with a manky towel or touch the tap, any bacteria on your hands, or on that surface, transfers back. But washing your hands under the tap using the lather motion of the bar, will remove any surface bacteria on your hands at the time.

And we all know in this COVID era, how much the importance of contactless, whether it’s from hand washing to touching doors, has played a role in keeping us COVID-free.

Bacteria that you wash off your hands does not live in the actual bar of soap. Bacteria tend to be attracted to the water sitting atop the soap, so if you are still worried that germs may attract to your bar of soap, you can make sure you do two things to prevent this:

  • Allow your soap to dry, by using an appropriately slatted soap dish. The soap that sits in my kitchen sits on the window sill, meaning the sun that comes in from the window dries it much quicker than having it sitting on the bench. It is also the most commonly used soap, and reached for by house inhabitants and visitors, so this ensures it stays drier for longer, and that it dries quicker between uses.
  • Rinse your soap for a few seconds after you’ve thoroughly washed your hands.

Now that we’ve established the safety level of bacteria transfer in bar soaps, let’s look at what happens with liquid soaps, and whether they would be considered as safe in the transference of bacteria, whether it be directly from hands, or from surface back to hands.

Earlier in this post I mentioned about bacteria preferring water on the soap bar, and that it doesn’t go into the soap bar. With liquid soap, the first and most abundant ingredient is, you guessed it, water.

So not only is the plastic material/surface of the liquid soap a bacteria issue, but there is some interesting information about liquid soaps that should be considered:

  • Liquid soap has a primary ingredient – water. Liquid soaps therefore need a synthetic preservative to prevent germ growth, and these preservatives don’t always work. Synthetic preservatives can break down over time, not be formulated properly and sometimes, cut with other ingredients to increase profit margins. Liquid soaps have been known to harbour and cause contamination with disease causing bacteria, because of this specific issue.
  • Public toilets usually do not usually use bar soap, but microbiologists have discovered that a quarter of the liquid soaps and dispensers in public toilets are so contaminated with high concentrations of very nasty bacteria that even after washing, your hands are less clean than before washing. Be particularly wary of refillable liquid soap dispensers in public toilets 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. 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 to save money

So next time you wonder whether or not a bar of soap is safe to use, please remember to re-read this article and pay attention to the way your family uses soap. You may be alarmed at what truly happens when the kids come inside and the parents come back from work.

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