Sunday, May 20, 2012

Can Bacteria Grow on Bar Soap?

A comment left on my Green Phone Booth post on traveling with bar soap made me pause. She said that after about 5 bouts of strep throat (not fun!), his mother:  "...(a nurse practitioner) said that a place where germs hide and you don't look for them is on your bar of soap..."

My first reaction was that this was another example of how far our germ-a-phobic society has come that our bar soap could be a place to host bacteria. 

We can't have a conversation about soap without chatting about Triclosan...

In March 2012, Health Canada released a statement proclaiming that Triclosan, the pesticide rated chemical added to our antibacterial soaps (among other things- more on that in a minute), is harming our environment calling for a voluntary removal from companies. 

While Health Canada seems more worries about the accumulation of Triclosan in our environment than our bodies, Environmental Defence's statement links Triclosan to possibly contributing to superbugs, confirms that it's a known endocrine disruptor which can cause cancers and Canadians are exposed to Triclosan in more than just liquid soap. It's in toothpaste, deodorant, shoes, clothing, diapers and pillows to just name a few (take action- sign the petition!)

The Canadian Medical Association has recently called for a ban on Triclosan on non-hospital products, stating that there has been no evidence that anti-bacterial soaps are not more effective at killing germs and bacteria than regular soap and good hand washing.

Adria Vasil, in her latest Ecoholic column (a reminder for this post), outlines all the reasons why we should ask our government to ban Triclosan from all the hidden places we could find it in our products.

So- do germs live on bar soap?
Although there was one study in 1988 (old!) that's often quoted that no, germs don't grow on bar soap...  But a bit of further searching reveals that it's not the actual soap that kills germs, but the act of washing with soap that lifts them off your hands and rinses them away (The Canadian Medical Association, Health Canada).

According to Health Canada: "The mechanical action of handwashing - rubbing your hands together with soap and water - breaks down the tiny bits of grease, fat and dirt on your hands that bad germs cling to. Soap doesn't actually kill the bad germs, instead, it's the combination of soap, rubbing, rinsing and drying that helps these bugs slide off your hands" (emphasis added by author)

Other sources indicate that soap dishes that aren't cleaned, or cracked soaps, may encourage more bacteria growth than normal.  But then, bacteria and germs would grow on your faucets, the doorknobs, and if you use liquid soap- the bottle and pump that you touch before washing your hands. 

The take home message: 

1. Triclosan isn't more effective at eradicating germs and bacteria in our homes and should be cause for real environmental and health concerns. If you're Canadian, we have until the end of May 2012 to comment on Health Canada's statement: email Substances Canada to let them know you'd like them to ban Triclosan from all consumer products:

2. The combination of rubbing your hands together, water and regular soap is what will keep bacteria away, and not in fact the actual soap itself. Therefore, regular bar soap that is cared for just like you would pump soap won't be more likely to spread germs. 

3. Take care to empty out your soap dish, and toss soap that's cracked or has holes.

4. Bar soap isn't the cause of a spread of bacteria, just like using liquid soap itself won't prevent the spread of germs. Germs spread through a lack of handwashing and hand to face behaviour. 

5. The best way to prevent the spread of bacteria? Wash your hands properly (without rings, between fingers, under the nails, tops of hands and for about a minute- 7 tips from Health Canada), rinse properly to lift off that bacteria, and don't touch your eyes or mouth with your hands. 

Why bar soap is still better than liquid:
1. Proper care (i.e. cleaning a liquid pump bottle just like you'd clean the soap dish) doesn't yield more bacteria on bar soap.

2. Bar soap cleans just as well as liquid soap (see above).

3. Less to no plastic equals no harmful phtalates, BPA or petrochemicals leaching into our bodies and Planet.

article copyright of EcoYogini at


  1. Great post! I actually was a little worried you found evidence that bacteria could grow more on bar soaps, but this is great news for all of us who are constantly trying to get people away from triclosan!

  2. @Brenna: thank you! interestingly, i'm not sure it grows "more" but just that it can grow- just as it will grow on pump soap bottles if they don't get cleaned. :) So, although i was initially disappointed to see that yes, it can grow- it was neat to learn about how handwashing really works :)

  3. Excellent post, as always!! You know, I have noticed that the kids at my school have a massive case of dry skin/eczema to the EXTREME. About half of my students are suffering from hands that are SO DRY they are BLEEDING. I cannot help but think that antibacterial gel is the culprit for this - they all have to use it several times a day, before lunch, after all recesses, etc. It is only in the past five years or so that I've seen this "epidemic" of dry skin in children. It really makes me crazy!

    And our liquid soap is, no doubt, antibacterial. I really wish we could just have regular soap - liquid or bar - and not be so paranoid!

  4. I've never thought soap was immune from bacteria but that it gets rinsed off every time you use it; whereas the liquid soap pump probably doesn't, you know?

  5. @Five Seed: ahhh- yep i always feel weird wiping down the therapy toys with wipes that have chemicals that are meant to kill super bugs like HIV... and then the next clients who walk through the door mouth them just the same... ick.

    @Beth: I think the idea is that if there is a crack in the soap bacteria can grow and doesn't get rinsed off. Also, the soapy water in the soap dish, if left, can breed bacteria as well.
    That said- like you point out- it's just common sense that if we take care of our soap it will be fine. Just as you need to clean a pump soap, you need to empty out and care for your bar soap.

  6. Good post, thanks. I've been reusing a foaming soap pump in my bathroom for a while (bubbles! whee!) but I'm a little worried because I have to mix the liquid castille soap with water to avoid pump clogs, and where there is water, microbes can grow. I think bar soap would probably be a better idea. Less packaging, too!

    With the triclosan thing...I think the amount of force used should be just enough to get the job done. Triclosan and other hospital grade disinfectants have too many drawbacks to be used casually.

  7. Interesting. I use bar soap (Kiss My Face olive oil soap) in the shower partly for the reason you cite: no plastic bottle (also no plastic wrapper).

    Triclosan is avoidable in both bar and liquid soap. But, alas, I use Colgate toothpaste, which often includes it. I was a big fan of Tom's of Maine toothpaste in the USA but it's so expensive in Canada (no Trader Joe's!).

  8. What should we store our bar soap in? Are plastic soap boxes bad? That's what I am currently using (and the soap I use is Abea Hygeia). And what about the people that brush their teeth with bar soap? The soap is usually applied to the toothbrush, which the toothbrush is usually wet with water beforehand, by running the bristles on the bar of soap. Is this sanitary?


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