Ideally, refillable dispensers should be cleaned every time they are refilled — but this is seldom the case, according to manufacturers. 

“Depending on the environment, type of soap, and maintenance, it can take just a few months for these bulk dispensers to get contaminated,” says Isabelle Faivre, vice president of marketing, Deb Group, Charlotte, North Carolina. “The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that if you use a bulk dispenser you take it off the wall and wash it each time you do a refill. But as we know, there aren’t many facility managers or building service contractors that will do that because it isn’t convenient.”

Janitors are more likely to top off soap levels when they become low, thereby increasing the risk of contamination. 

“When you open the lid and see mold around the edges, that’s the first sign that something’s wrong,” says Faivre. “Then you start to see things floating in the soap and the residue building up at the bottom.”

Even when refillable dispensers are cleaned and disinfected between refills, they can quickly become re-contaminated.

“We’ve seen that when a bulk-type system is cleaned as it should be, it is likely that contamination will resurface,” says Wojtkun.

Dr. Gerba’s research confirms this: A number of cleaning procedures were used to rid the dispensers of bacteria, but the results were poor. 

“Once bacteria colonize the dispensers, it’s tough to get them out,” says Dr. Gerba. “You get a biofilm in some areas of the dispensers, and the bacteria come back pretty quickly.” 

An additional drawback is the time it takes to properly clean the dispensers. 

“It would take 15 to 20 minutes to clean each dispenser, which would be a cost factor for cleaners, especially if you have a large restroom,” says Dr. Gerba. “So we don’t think that would be too practical, even if it did work.”

Likewise, refilling bulk dispensers is a time-consuming task. 

“The process of pouring soap out of a gallon jug into the reservoir can be messy and labor intensive,” says Wojtkun. “So from a service standpoint, that can be an issue as well.” 

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