People generally tend to buy more liquid soap products for hand washing than solid soap bars, often driven by a fear of other people’s bacteria lurking on bar soap. Companies have encouraged the notion that using liquid soap was more hygienic with clever marketing as there is a higher profit margin from the more expensive product.
In terms of COVID-19, both liquid soap and bar soap have been shown to be equally as efficient in washing our hands. Although bacteria may stay on a bar of soap between washing, studies have consistently shown that this does not contaminate the next user. But most studies on bar soap are based on bacteria not viruses.
The NHS, World Health Organisation, and Centres for Disease Control do not stipulate whether to use a bar or liquid soap. A precaution with bar soap is to keep it dry and not let it lie in a puddle of germ-loving sludge.
The environmental impact of solid bars vs. liquid soap
From an environmental point of view, the bar of soap is the overall winner. It also tends to have a smaller list of simple ingredients.
The environmental impact of liquid soap is thought to be higher due to the fact it:
- Is heavier: Containing lots of water, liquid soaps are likely to be heavier than bar soap, resulting in a higher carbon footprint for transportation.
- Involves more packaging: Packaging for body washes and liquid soaps tend to be plastic bottles that end up in landfill or our oceans. Even if the bottle is made from recycled plastic, a thin paper wrapper or no wrapper for soap bars is better.
- Contains petroleum: Many shower gels and body washes are made of petroleum-derived synthetic detergents and need emulsifying agents and stabilisers to maintain their consistency.
- Damages aquatic life: What you use on your body ends up in the water system. Liquid detergents may contain harmful substances that can bioaccumulate in living organisms.
The best way to clean your hands is the old-fashioned way.
Some forms of hand-cleansing are better than others, said Dr. Neha Vyas, a family medicine physician at Cleveland Clinic. She says, for the most part, hand sanitizers play “second fiddle” to the actual act of washing your hands.
You should wash your hands for at least 20 seconds, she said, adding that the old trick to sing your ABCs helps mark time. Vyas noted that while hand sanitizer has been harder to find, there’s still plenty of soap available to stock up on.
Here’s the important part: The type of soap does not matter. Since COVID-19 is a virus, antibacterial hand soap is not going to give you an advantage over other varieties.
“There is no clear evidence that antibacterial soap works better than any other soap,” Fichtenbaum said. “The most important thing is washing hands for at least 20 seconds, and then it is a combination of soap plus mechanical disruption that works [to rid hands of the virus].”
Of course, you might not have access to water, soap and a sink at all times. This is where hand sanitizer comes in. If you can carry a small bottle and use it after coming in contact with people and surfaces, you’ll be in better shape than someone who doesn’t use it frequently.
“Anything that has about 60% alcohol or more is probably a good product,” Vyas said.
Alcohol-free hand sanitizing products are currently selling in large quantities, as well, but they are not recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC recommends soap and water because the process is better at killing certain types of germs, including norovirus, than hand sanitizer. Also, if your hands are dirty or greasy, sanitizer is less effective.
If you do use hand sanitizer, the CDC notes to check the back of the bottle and apply the recommended amount to the palm of your hand. Make sure you rub the product all over the palms of both hands, as well as the backs of hands and in between fingers, so the entire surface area of both hands are covered. Once it dries completely, it should be fully effective. (If there’s grease or a lot of dirt on your hands, it might help to try and wipe that off before applying.)
Bottom line? Cleanse your hands as often as you can, with soap and water if it’s available, and alcohol-based sanitizer if it’s not. And yes. It’s very hard, but try not to touch your face.