/ 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?

05/03/2020: Arrived here due to the coronavirus outbreak? If so, head to this page for the latest advice on hand gels and washing your hands.

19/05/2014: 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.

Wavechange: “I have not seen scientific evidence to support the need to use antibacterial cleaners and sprays in such environments and in the home.”

How effective is vinegar as an antibacterial for cleaning in the home i.e. work tops etc? I use it quite a lot as I am averse to breathing in the chemicals contained in proprietary cleaners, especially sprays.

Vinegar does have some antimicrobial properties because it is acidic (dilute acetic acid), but many bacteria will survive and vinegar is actually made using bacteria.

A damp, soapy cloth is fine for cleaning worktops. Bleach is very effective for killing bacteria, so should be used for dishcloths, etc. and for cleaning chopping boards and anything else that has been in contact with raw meat.

I do not know why it is legal to put irritant and toxic materials in sprays. 🙁

Many thanks Wavechange. I had doubts about the efficacy of vinegar as an a antibacterial as I recently added a few drops to a bowl of water I keep on the top of the radiator in my lounge for rehydration during the winter months and to my astonishment green mould rings appeared within a few days! This has never happened when using plain water.

You are absolutely right, Beryl. A dilute solution of vinegar will just provide a carbon and energy source (food source) promoting growth of moulds, most of which grow best under slightly acidic conditions.

Vinegar is used to prevent microbial growth (e.g. for beetroot and pickles), but it needs to be concentrated (strong) and not dilute. It’s the same with sugar. If enough is present it will prevent growth of moulds and bacteria in jams but if not enough sugar is present it will encourage growth of bugs.

I suggest you change the water in the bowl every couple of days, but wipe the inside of the bowl with a little bleach because the bugs form a film on the surface.

Peter Scott says:
23 May 2014

Next time you go to your local Fish & Chip shop and ask for salt and vinegar you may be interested to know that you will almost certainly not be getting what you ask for where vinegar is concerned. The reason is exactly as described above – vinegar would go green in the bottle.

In the 1930s the famous Fish and Chip shop proprietor Harry Ramsden was very aware of this and tasked his suppliers with finding a substitute, which they did.

What has been used since then is Non-Brewed Condiment which has the taste and smell of vinegar but does not go mouldy, no matter how long it is in the bottle.

So there!!

The main reason that non-brewed condiment (essentially industrial acetic acid plus caramel) is used is because it is cheap compared with vinegar, which is produced by fermentation. The reason that this cheap vinegar substitute is unlikely to grow mould is that it does not contain all the nutrients needed for growth of the mould.

soli says:
24 May 2014

I am sorry but I wash my hands thoroughly with the liquid soap & water then dry my hands with a paper towel & use it to open the latch of the door & throw it in the appropriate bin. This is a procedure I observe in all public toilets. I am also very conscious of using my hands to support myself om escalator handrails etc. & wash my hands at the nearest opportunity. Keeping my hands away from my mouth, eyes & nose as much as possible also help.

\as the Mayo Clinic says ” Keep in mind that antibacterial soap is no more effective at killing germs than is regular soap. Using antibacterial soap may even lead to the development of bacteria that are resistant to the product’s antimicrobial agents — making it harder to kill these germs in the future”

It also goes on to say that hand sanitisers need to be 60% alcohol to be effective but this advice is not on the CDC site.

Alcohol-based hand rub is relatively innocuous and relies on the antimicrobial properties of one or more alcohols at high concentration. There is no antimicrobial residue that could be harmful to the user or the environment and there is no risk of selecting resistant organisms.

Alcohol-based hand rubs are not effective against all harmful bacteria, perhaps the biggest problem being Clostridium difficile. This is generally associated with hospital infections but since it is often a consequence of antibiotic treatment, it could also be a problem in the home. Great care must be taken if someone in the household has diarrhoea or other evidence of an infection of the digestive system. Fresh bleach is an effective way of dealing with soiled clothing and bedding.

Amanda says:
20 May 2014

I use liquid soap and water at home but do find it useful to have an antibac gel in my bag in case I need to change a nappy somewhere without access to soap and water (I have baby twins). However, I don’t worry for just out and about as I think contact with some germs etc isn’t necessarily a problem.

We stopped washing hands using anything with anti-bacterial additives. We avoid using anything advertised with microban. It’s almost as bad as the use of DDTs in the 50s/60s. Short term good: long term BAD.

Soap and running water works well. Probably more important to wash your hands regularly, several times a day. Fondling other peoples phones and ipads could be a good source of bugs.

I use boiling water straight from the Quooker onto chopping boards where it has been a sacrificial veg board and I have other chopping to do. Meats etc it is the dishwasher.

Regarding electronics:

Cleaning and Disinfecting Electronic Devices

Remote controls, computer keyboards, video game controllers, the computer mouse, and plastic and fabric smartphone and tablet covers
Once a week, or more frequently if users are sick with colds, flu or other viruses…

Disconnect devices and remove smartphone and tablet covers.
Remove all visible particles—food or otherwise–using a dry cloth or vacuum cleaner with appropriate attachment.
Swab with a well-wrung-out, commercial, pre-moistened disinfecting wipei.

Touch screens

Disconnect devices.
Remove all visible particles—food or otherwise–using a dry cloth or vacuum cleaner with appropriate attachment.
Clean with a scratch-free product designed for electronicsii.

iWringing out your disinfecting wipe is important to avoid moisture seeping into the interiors of electronic devices. If a disinfecting wipe is unavailable, use pre-moistened alcohol-based eyeglass lens cleaner or mild soap and water on a cloth or paper towel.

iiThese products may or may not contain disinfectant.
– See more at: http://www.waterandhealth.org/cleaning-disinfecting-electronic-devices/#sthash.KO6qCIr4.9qAX0EFn.dpuf

GrahamShirville says:
23 May 2014

For door handles and similar “touch” items use copper and copper alloys – they have an inherent strong antimicrobial action. This will stop the build up of bacteria in a continuous and safe manner without creating any resistance in the bugs.

All UK coins are based on copper alloys (or are copper plated) and so they are unlikely to be a risk. Even the “silver” coins have a high copper content.

PABrereton says:
24 May 2014

I read that the evolution of super-bugs is down to the over prescription of antibiotics, the widespread use of low level antibiotics in farming and the use of antibacterial hand wash. In which case all three should be banned.

gillian King says:
24 May 2014

How effective is steam? I use a steam mop for floors and a large handheld steam gun with attached pads for most of my other cleaning.

frank says:
25 May 2014

what I didn’t know about antibacterial hand soap is that you have to leave it on for 30 seconds before you rinse it off! how many people wait 30 seconds before they finish washing their hands?

Thanks for this article – I have been wondering about this recently in view of the rising price of anything in a pretty bottle. As I suspected, the upscaling of liquid handwash to include additional chemicals in the perceived interests of hygiene and protection from germs is a bit of a con. Ordinary soap is good enough and very cheap. For those who don’t like a scummy soap bar zimming around their basin, the plain and basic liquid soap [in a refillable bottle] is adequate and satisfactory though slightly less economical. No more anti-bac soap in our house from now on.

Beryl remembered Lifebuoy soap. Well, it’s still available along with Sunlight, Fairy and the infamous Carbolic soaps.

No one seems to have anything good to say about the anti-bacterial soaps so it is purely the power of marketing that has got us spending hundreds of millions of pounds on these fancy products. It will be interesting to see whether, as the word gets round [Which? – you should get in a lather and publicise this], consumers change their shopping habits, especially since it really is pouring money down the drain.

That’s really good to know that Lifebuoy and carbolic soaps are still available. Thank you. What I would really like to know is why liquid soap has become so popular, as usually the main ingredient is water. Another main ingredient is Sodium Laureth Sulphate, which is supposed to be so bad for the skin, and I wonder if bars of soap are equally so drying for the skin. Must ask Which to investigate!

My comment to which you have responded, Ann, is now over three years old and things have probably changed. I have certainly found it much more difficult to buy plain liquid soap nowadays as it has disappeared from supermarket shelves and I have also looked in discount stores, pound shops and places like Wilko and Savers. Everything in a bottle is now ‘anti-bacterial’.

Another product that also seems to have disappeared is foaming hand-wash which was usually plain [not anti-bacterial]. It was more economical in use than the normal liquids but still sufficiently hygienic. Occasionally I see a Method brand version available on special offer but never on regular sale. Another foaming hand-wash brand that was better in my opinion was A&J London which I think is available to order on-line from the manufacturer and comes in various fragrances.

I am not interested in economy but saving nature. Chemicals that can kill bacteria can also kill or harm other creatures and since what goes down our drains often [although it shouldn’t] enters our surface water disposal systems it can end up in streams, brooks, rivers, ponds and lakes and goes up through the whole food chain to insects, fishes, birds and mammals.

It is purely the power of marketing and product promotion that has led to the dominance of anti-bacterial hand-wash. Soap and water are all that are needed several times a day and should not adversely affect the skin. I understand, but I am not qualified to comment, that scientific opinion no longer insists that hot water must be used for hygienic hand-washing and that cold water is equally effective.

Decanting a quantity of basic supermarket own-label shower gel into an empty pump bottle might be a satisfactory and economical way of providing hand-wash because so far as I know this is not ‘anti-bacterial’.

The advert and product that historically has enraged me the most was the one for the electronic anti bacterial soap dispenser which still completely baffles me as to how it ever got invented. The single most useless invention of all time 😉

Their TV ads had the audacity to imply that it was safer than normal soap with built in hand pump dispensers on top because the top of the soap container had germs on it as people pressed it down.

The fact that after pressing down on such a device, any germs picked up would within less than a second be dealt with by the proceeding hand wash seemed to escape them but the sheer contempt of people’s intelligence in thinking they could con enough people into buying it is staggering 🙂

Lloyd Atkin says:
17 June 2014

At Bio-D, we don’t believe in killing bacteria for the sake of it as many types of bacteria are harmless or even beneficial to us. This is why we don’t not test or make claims regarding products like Laundry Products or Washing up Liquid as we believe there simply is not any need for these items to kill bacteria.

We do, however, test several of our products to the BS EN 1276 standard for control of E-Coli, Salmonella and Staphylococcus Aureus (the SA of MRSA). The reason that we choose to do this is that many of our customers/supporters in independent retail also prepare food or sell fresh food in their premises and there is an Environmental Health requirement for them to use products that conform to the BS EN Standard. After talking to customers, we developed a Hand Wash, and two hard surface cleaners (All Purpose Sanitiser and Multi Surface Sanitiser) to cover the requirements of our customers. We focused only on products that were required by EHO’s in food preparation areas as we don’t believe in gimmicks. You can argue that good hand washing practice kills germs anyway but this is not acceptable to an EHO. Many of our customers are also parents so like to wipe their children’s high chairs and changing mats with a certified product for peace of mind. We also launched our Home and Garden Sanitiser tested to this standard which is for cleaning sinks, drains and wheelie bins etc. The thinking behind this is that many foul odours are caused by bacteria and in order to neutralise these we need an anti-bacterial action. All of the mentioned products are still however safe for use in septic tanks as they are carefully formulated not to be overly powerful and to biodegrade readily

I am another one who does not understand why EHOs are obsessed with antibacterial products. It makes sense to wipe over surfaces that may contaminated with bacteria from raw meat with a little bleach and as long as you don’t use much it won’t be a problem even with septic tanks. Bleach breaks down quickly to leave nothing more harmful than salt and that is why it is used to disinfect babies’ bottles. (Milton is effectively watered down bleach.) The EHOs should focus on closing down filthy premises until they are in fit state to handle food.

Incidentally, hand washing removes bacteria rather than kills them.

I like using antibac sprays for the kitchen worktops and toilet. It is more about convenience to use this product over soap and water, etc. Just spray and wipe; only some larger grease spots need a 2nd round.