Is Antibacterial Soap All Washed Up?

Soap is soap, isn't it? Maybe not. Many people worried about getting sick buy antibacterial soap. It may cost more, but for years the ads have said antibacterial is better.

People believe it. Outside a drugstore, most people we talked to used antibacterial soap. One woman said, "During cold and flu season, I just like to make sure that I'm killing the bacteria."

But does antibacterial soap really make a difference?

We followed some people who get their hands very dirty, workers at New York's Staten Island Zoo. Microbiologist Christine Ginocchio of New York's North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System Laboratories took samples of what was on the workers' hands after a morning of work -- feeding animals, cleaning stalls, gardening and doing administrative tasks.

Then she gave them a lesson on hand-washing technique. Do people really need a lesson in hand washing? Yes, say microbiologists, because few of us do it right.

Here are the steps:

Wash for 20 to 30 seconds.

Lather well, using plenty of soap.

Use a lot of friction, which gets rid of the dead skin and dirt that harbors germs.

Rinse thoroughly and dry your hands well.

Especially if you're in a public restroom, don't touch any part of the sink with your clean hands. After drying, use your towel to turn off the faucet.

After the lesson, the workers washed. Half used ordinary soap, and the other half used Dial antibacterial, the bestseller. We took a sample of what was now on their hands and allowed the bacteria to grow for three days.

Ginocchio explained that the majority of the bacteria on the workers' hands was "transient bacteria," that is picked up when we touch different surfaces in the environment.

An unscientific comparison after three days showed that both the antibacterial and the regular soap did a good job killing bacteria. "Maybe a little bit more with the antibacterial in this one group versus the non," said Ginocchio.

More scientific studies have found that simply washing your hands correctly may mean more to your health than using an antibacterial soap. Antibacterials can kill more germs for a longer time, which is why they're useful in hospitals, but they have no effect on viruses.

And will they keep your family from getting sick? Dial says they'll help, but Columbia University researchers once studied hundreds of households, some of which used antibacterial products, others which didn't. They found no difference in coughs, runny noses, sore throats and other viral illnesses.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Procter & Gamble gave hundreds of poor families in Pakistan either antibacterial or ordinary soap. The CDC wanted to determine the effect of hand washing on diseases like acute respiratory infections and diarrhea. The result, according to the CDC, was that "incidence of disease did not differ significantly between households given plain soap versus antibacterial soap."

The Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC) studied data on antibacterial products and concluded that "the literature yielded no scientific data supporting the use of antimicrobial agents in household products as a means to prevent infection."

As Ginocchio told us, "The most important thing is, simply, really, really good hand washing, independent of the type of soap that you might use."

That raises the question: Do people wash?

A recent nationwide survey by the American Society for Microbiology and The Soap and Detergent Association found 25 percent of men don't wash their hands after using public restrooms. Women do better. Only 10 percent of them don't wash.