Many of us wash our hands with soap and water, but how much is the soap really worth?
SCA Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget/Flickr
It's common knowledge that washing your hands often and well is the best way to prevent disease transmission. Many of us are accustomed to using soap during handwashing as a matter of course -- it's there in public bathrooms, it's in our homes, it's in the office kitchen. Then there are those miscreants among us who seem satisfied simply to rinse with running water before going back to their business. Who are these germ-mongerers, that they think they can ignore the very clearly labeled (and fragrant!) sudsy agents the rest of us use with such diligence?
Before we get too carried away in our indignation, it's worth pointing out that soap is neither the holy elixir we sometimes think it is, nor do the vast majority of people actually use it as fastidiously as they should. Below, what science has to tell us about the real value of soap.
How effective is soap over plain old water? It works, but all else being equal, water has a greater marginal effect. Health professionals recommend handwashing before eating, after using the bathroom, changing a diaper, and other situations in which you might come into contact with harmful bacteria. Germs cling to our hands a lot more easily than we give them credit for, and almost no amount of soap will remove them if other aspects of your handwashing technique aren't up to snuff. On the bright side, combining good technique with water alone can actually remove a significant share of germs from your hands.