Is anti-bacterial soap worth it?

You might assume that products listed as “antibacterial soap” offer a better job of killing microbes than standard soap. However, research suggest otherwise.

In 2019 the FDA (Food & Drug Administration) announced that “there isn’t enough science to show that over-the-counter (OTC) antibacterial soaps are better at preventing illness than washing with plain soap and water. To date, the benefits of using antibacterial hand soap haven’t been proven. In addition, the wide use of these products over a long time has raised the question of potential negative effects on your health.”

But before we go on, what exactly is “antibacterial soap”?

Well, it’s regular soap (a mixture of fat or oil, water, and an alkali) with added chemicals. The main one of these being triclosan. Triclosan is an anti-bacterial which is used in many consumer products — including clothing, kitchenware, furniture, and toys — to prevent contamination.

Yet the effectiveness of using triclosan alongside regular soap has long been questioned, and the downsides may out-weight the benefits. Triclosan has been linked with increased food and environmental allergies in children. It is also suspected to have lead to a growing bacteria resistant to antibiotics.

Patrick McNamara, an associate professor of environmental engineering at Marquette University explains: “I think soap companies pretty much know you don’t need this stuff, but they keep making them because they know there’s a market for it,” he says. “People would be better off using regular soap.”

The FDA’s advice is clear: “Wash your hands with plain soap and water. That’s still one of the most important steps you can take to avoid getting sick and to prevent spreading germs.”

Why Is Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) In So Many Products Despite Its Bad Reputation?

Producing liquid soap is actually a fairly drawn out process requiring many different steps. Most soap companies from designer brands to artisan soap makers don’t have the equipment, capacity or know-how to make liquid soap on a scale that will make it cheap enough to distribute and sell for profit.

Instead, they make products their own by creating a unique scent which is then added to a mass produced liquid like SLS, SLES or a more natural alternative before bottling. SLS is one of the more common liquid soaps used because it is clear and odourless so more easily coloured and scented to make a new “unique” liquid soap. It is usually derived from palm oil which adds to its cost-effectiveness.

Whilst SLS is an effective detergent, it can also be a skin irritant. As HealthLine reports:

“SLS and SLES can irritate eyes, skin, and lungs, especially with long-term use. SLES may also be contaminated with a substance called 1,4-dioxane, which is known to cause cancer in laboratory animals. This contamination occurs during the manufacturing process.”

SLS is also often added to toothpaste to act as a foaming agent. A Norwegian study in 1994 revealed that this almost tripled the rate of mouth ulcers for those susceptible. A systematic review in 2019 concluded that “SLS‐free dentifrice, when compared to SLS‐containing statistically significantly, reduced the number of ulcers, duration of ulcer, number of episodes, and ulcer pain”. So if you’re experiencing an increase in mouth ulcers, make sure to check the ingredients list of your toothpaste!

To answer the original question, SLS is so common for a number reasons:

  • It is clear and odourless, so can be added to many different types of products.
  • It can be derived from palm oil and petroleum, making it one of the most cost effective surfactants.
  • Its foaming properties make it popular with consumers, who often associate this with premium products.

I hope this article has been helpful! If you would like to see sulfate-free product recommendations, click here.

The History of NoPoo

A history of No-Poo is a history of the world! Commercial shampoo wasn’t invented until the twentieth century, so for the vast majority of human history people used either local concoctions or didn’t wash at all. The word for shampoo is derived from the from the Hindi chāmpo (चाँपो) and was brought into the English language during the colonial era.

Interesting note: The Hindi word chāmpo (चाँपो) is itself derived from the Sanskrit root chapati (चपति). So shampoo shares the same etymological origin as unleavened flatbread!

As for our ancestors, they had a number of different approaches to haircare. Ancient Egyptians found the very idea of hair unhygienic and shaved it all off! In the Indian subcontinent a very effective early shampoo was made by boiling Sapindus with dried Indian gooseberry (amla) and a selection of other herbs, using the strained extract.

Beginning in 1914 shampoo began to be commercialised. First by Kasey Hebert and then more famously under Hans Schwarzkopf. Originally, soap and shampoo were very similar products; both containing the same naturally derived surfactants, a type of detergent. These early commercialised shampoos were incredibly damaging, leading to the quip “I can’t go out; I’m washing my hair!”. As such, shampooing was limited to once a week.  

Starting in the 1970’s several ad campaigns began to push the idea that it was necessary to shampoo daily. Commercials featuring hair icons Farrah Fawcett and Christie Brinkley confidently asserted that frequent shampooing was the future.

Frosted, Sprayed and Feathered: 20 Hair Product Ads from the 1970s ...

This coincided with an increased use of sulfates in shampoos. Sulfates are found in a variety of products, from shampoo to dish liquid and laundry detergent. When used in shampoo, ingredients like sodium lauryl sulfate essentially amplify the effects of the shampoo, allowing it to more effectively strip away the oil in your hair.

Sulfates are closely linked with damage to hair protein. In fact, one study from 2005 shows that hair immersed in a sodium dodecyl sulfate solution loses two times as much protein as hair immersed in water. This can lead to split ends, breakage and hair that is difficult to manage.

The 2020 coronavirus pandemic has led to surge of interest on google as to how to transition away from shampoo. Numerous forums exist discussing life without shampoo, with a reddit forum hosting over 40,000 members. A related movement called “low-poo” has also encouraged to move towards less damaging shampoos and more infrequent washing.

It is unlikely we’ll be seeing the end to commercial shampoo anytime soon. But the market for homemade formulas and more ethical cleaning products has grown massively. And that has to be a positive!