Does soap kill germs?

Originally Published: May 4, 2001 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: March 16, 2015
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Dear Alice,

I remember reading somewhere a couple years ago that hand or bath soap does not KILL germs or sterilize our hands. Rather, it helps loosen dirt and grime, and it makes the skin more slippery so that dirt and germs rinse off more easily with water. It makes sense to me, but my daughter who is studying for a medical career said I was off my rocker. I am getting older, but I'm sure I didn't fall out of my chair onto my head — but instead read that in a health newsletter somewhere. What's the skinny? Can my daughter trust me and what I read (in this case, at least), or should I throw in the towel (for 100 percent memory recall)?

— Slippery Soap

Dear Slippery Soap,

You are on firm footing when it comes to one aspect of hand hygiene. Regular household soap or cleanser does not kill germs — rather, it suspends (or lifts) them off the skin surface, allowing the microscopic critters to be rinsed down the drain.

Antimicrobial or antibacterial soap, the type that your daughter will use before she performs surgery or patient exams, does actually kill bacteria and other microorganisms, and can sometimes inhibit their future growth. It's also possible to buy antibacterial soap and other applications for home use, but some experts worry that using antimicrobial products may create stronger, more resistant strains of bacteria. When it comes to lowering the risk for spreading infection, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that regular soap is adequate for the general public to use for this purpose, and that "super soap" can be saved for those working in health care, child care, or food preparation settings.

Both of you are correct and using good soap sense, so don't throw in the towel — save it for the next time you wash up.

By the way, regardless of the type of soap used, proper and adequate hand washing is key to good hand hygiene and is considered the best way to prevent the transmission of microorganisms.