/ Health, Shopping

Do antibacterial products beat hand washing?

Hand washing in a sink

A bit of dirt never did anyone any harm, according to the saying. But is that really the case? As sales of antibacterial products increase we wanted to know – are we becoming more paranoid or are the risks real?

We asked two expert scientists to debunk some myths about germs as well as swabbing some everyday items to find out about the risks. We also looked at whether you need certain antibacterial products.

When we swabbed everyday items for germs we found some people really aren’t as hygienic as you’d hope. Of the 30 shopping trolleys and baskets we tested, three showed positive for enterobacteria – two at high levels.

These bacteria commonly come from human and animal waste and include E. coli, salmonella and shigella. Which? Computing has previously swabbed tablets and keyboards and found higher levels of bacteria, where 14 out of the 30 keyboards had very high levels of enterobacteria.

And with UK consumers spending an estimated £239m on multipurpose germ-killing cleaning products last year according to Mintel – it’s an expensive business.

Set on sanitising?

Now we live in reasonable harmony with many bacteria and viruses and most of the time we manage to resist getting ill. So while there’s a serious yuck factor, the chances are that germs are not going to harm most of us, most of the time.

In fact coming into contact with low levels of bacteria and viruses can help the body maintain an effective immune system. Other bacteria are actually beneficial or simply harmless.

It would be mad to say that germs are never an issue – any type can cause significant problems given the right conditions. And the risks multiply if you have a diminished immune system, or are very young or very old. It also depends on the type of germs you encounter and how many. But if you’re spending lots of money on antibacterial products, it’s worth considering if you could achieve similar results with soap and water.

So how do deal with germs? Are you a soap and water person or do you prefer to carry a bottle of hand gel with you everywhere you go?


I would like to see antibacterial handwash removed from general sale. Proper hand washing is perfectly adequate. The chemicals used in antibacterial products in waste water cause environmental damage and may be harmful to humans. I don’t know if triclosan is still used in handwash, but at one time it was even included in toothpaste – without much thought being given to the consequences.

We need to stop exposure of ourselves and our children to potentially toxic chemicals.


What a good idea. Ban it from sale so that me and my fellow volunteers can only was our hands in collected rain water. Yes, a good idea.


Maldwyn – Are you aware of the number of everyday chemicals that have have been removed from the market in recent years because it has been discovered that they are hazardous?

Anything that is harmful to one type of life is quite likely to harm others, so chemicals used to kill bacteria can be harmful to humans, and waste water containing these chemicals certainly causes environmental damage. One of the most worrying examples of antibacterial chemicals used in handwash is triclosan and it is easy to look up the hazards of this.

Gloves are probably the best protection when doing voluntary work. If you feel the need for an antibacterial product then alcohol-based hand-rub does not have the drawbacks of the antibacterial handwashes that are in every supermarket.

Diana Pettit says:
31 May 2016

That’s all well and good when you’re by a washbasin. If you’re travelling you must have some alternative.


I wash my hands using liquid hand wash. Seeing people using anti-bacterial hand gels makes me think that they are not clean and do not wash their hands properly.

At home I regularly, wipe handles with a bleach/soap/water mix or dettol.

I think loo flush buttons, pulls and cord are the most unhygienic and would much prefer a voice recognition alert to set the flush off. Also trouser zips, waist bands must be very dirty.

James says:
25 March 2015

The answer is then to get voice recognition trousers zips…there we go folks!!!


I can remember the days in my youth when carbolic soap was used at home and in schools by the brand name of Lifebuoy which did a good job of keeping most bacteria away.

Since these antibacterial gels don’t kill viruses anyway, I can’t see the point as it is virtually impossible to avoid coming into contact with germs of one species or another and there is always the airborne variety floating around at the ready looking for a suitable host to latch onto! There are buttons to press in lifts, on parking meters and security entrance systems everywhere you go these days and unless you become completely paranoid and lock yourself away in isolation it is impossible to avoid contact with them.

This of shouldn’t stop people washing their hands after visiting the loo though. I have been in public toilets when people have exited without bothering to wash their hands and have gone on to push their shopping trolley around the store. Also people stopping for coffee and cake after handling a trolley so a hand gel might prove useful on these occasions. I always take a hand gel away on holiday abroad as there has been the odd occasion where washing facilities were unavailable.

I do think there is still a case for people working in the food industry and in hospitals where the potential danger of contamination is more likely to continue using antibacterial gels, but most peoples immune systems do need something to work on to prevent it from attacking its host, but apart from that I don’t think the antibacterials are absolutely necessary for people in general.


Using hand rubs to help control transmission of bacteria and viruses in high risk environments such as hospitals and GP surgeries makes sense.

Good practice in handling and storage of food in commercial premises is vital to avoid cases of food poisoning. Cleanliness is important but I have not seen scientific evidence to support the need to use antibacterial cleaners and sprays in such environments or in the home.

Coins, door handles and anything touched by many people has the potential to transfer bacteria and viruses, but this is not a problem for those in a reasonable state of health. As a microbiologist I tend to notice how few people wash their hands when using toilets in pubs etc. Hopefully the ladies are more responsible.

I always wash my hands when I get home after a shopping expedition. Never mind the bugs, I want to get rid of the smell of cheap perfume picked up from the handle of the supermarket trolley. 🙁


The state of loos after a long flight on a plane makes carrying a good hand cleaner with you essential.