New research has found that when it comes to removing bacteria from hands, standard soaps work just as well as antibacterial options.

It’s true that Korean researchers found that standard over-the-counter antibacterial soaps with triclosan are more effective at killing bacteria, but it is only the case when that bacteria is exposed to the soap for hours at a time. Seeing as typical handwashing practices last only seconds, not hours, that antibacterial soap was just as effective as standard soaps at removing bacteria.

"[The] antiseptic effect of triclosan depends on its exposure concentration and time," explained study co-author Min Suk Rhee, a professor in the department of biotechnology and the department of food bioscience and technology at the College of Life Sciences and Biotechnology at Korea University in Seoul.

But most people who wash their hands with antibacterial soap do so for less than 30 seconds, Rhee noted, using formulations containing less than 0.3 percent triclosan -- the maximum allowed by law. And that combination, he said, is "not adequate for having an antibacterial effect."

Even so, NPR reporting quoted Brian Sansoni, vice president of communication and membership for the American Cleaning Institute, as calling the study "kind of irrelevant." That's because Sansoni says companies are increasingly switching to other ingredients in place of triclosan, which has been criticized for potentially causing a variety of health issues, from antibiotic resistance to endocrine disruption.

The study "talks about one specific ingredient that really is not being used in much of the mass-market antibacterial soaps anymore," says Sansoni.

Study details:
To see if triclosan made a difference in controlling bacteria in the current study, investigators placed 20 strains of bacteria into laboratory test tubes. They exposed the test tubes to both plain soap and soap containing 0.3 percent triclosan. The tubes were preheated to mimic typical hand-washing temperatures, the study said.

When bacteria were continuously exposed to triclosan for very long periods of time -- nine hours or more -- the antiseptic demonstrated "significantly" stronger antibacterial properties, the researchers said.

However, lab exposure to just 10, 20 or 30 seconds of triclosan soap translated into no more antibacterial benefit than similar exposures to plain soap, the study revealed.

A follow-up test involving 16 healthy adults confirmed these findings. All participants first had their hands exposed to bacteria. They then washed their hands and lower forearms in warm water for 30 seconds with either plain soap or 0.3 percent triclosan soap, the study said.

The result: While both soaps were largely effective at eliminating bacteria, the difference between the two soaps was "non-significant."

Still, Rhee stressed that this result is not the final word on all antibacterial soap products.

"Our study [only] means that the triclosan in soap does not always guarantee higher antimicrobial efficacy during hand-washing."

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Rhee and his colleagues outline their findings in the Sept. 16 issue of the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy.