Antibacterial soap was initially introduced in the 1950s for its deodorizing qualities, but soon its primary job was keeping your hands clean and, of course, bacteria-free. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) primarily monitors the ingredients used in the manufacture of these soaps and any claims made by the companies who produce and market them.
The FDA also mandated that the same antibacterial agents used in professional soaps are to be used in the consumer versions. And now it gets really interesting; the FDA now states that antibacterial soaps are no more effective than using a good hand soap and warm water for antibacterial protection. Most health care workers don't want to take any chances with the health of their patients - and co-workers - and choose to err on the side of caution.
An antibacterial soap is designed primarily to kill germs, but it has to cleanse the skin, too. There are several factors that the manufacturers are concerned with; the foam quality and how quickly the soap foams up and making sure that it rinses off cleanly without leaving a residue.
The consumer versions of these products have some aesthetic qualities that the users like and have come to expect. Things like viscosity (how thick the product is), fragrances, the color of the soap and preservatives for shelf life. All of these soaps have what's known as "surfactants" that fall into two categories: a primary surfactant that generates the foam, and a secondary surfactant that provides more creaminess. Some soaps have something called a "pearlizing agent" which gives it that silky, opalescent appearance. Professional products are mainly concerned with how effective the soap is at germ killing.
Which brings you to the active ingredients common in nearly all antibacterial soap on the market today? These are generally referred to as "agents" and if you can say either one fast three times, you get a free pair of Dickies scrubs. Kidding.
Ready? The first is, "3, 4, 4-trichlorocarbonilide." Its shorthand name is, "trichlocarban." The next one's easy; "2-hydroxy-2',4,4'-trichlorodiphenyl" but its friends just call it "triclosan." The most abundant inactive ingredient in antibacterial soaps is water, although they use "deionized" or distilled water because hard tap water interferes with some detergents, reducing their efficacy. The water constitutes anywhere from 40% all the way up to 80%.
The antibacterial soap industry generates over $600 million annually, and that's likely to increase because these products are the "must-have" in our germ-conscious world. Earlier you learned that these soaps were initially designed to help control body odors caused by the action of bacteria that's found in perspiration, but today most people rely on deodorants to accomplish that. Since many of you work in close quarters, your co-workers will be eternally grateful if you smell nice. That's funny but very true since an unpleasant smell (or a nice one) has a direct impact on your mood.
Web MD has the FDA's view on antibacterial soap.
The healthcare worker makes the final decision on which antibacterial soap to use, both on-the-job and at home, and the information presented here will help you make an informed decision.