Logically, it makes sense that you want to clean your body with something, well, clean. That raises some interesting questions about bar soap. Unlike liquid soap that you dispense from a container, bar soap sits out in the open, seemingly vulnerable to all the germs in your shower. Then you rub that same bar all over your body, washcloth, or loofah again and again until it whittles down to that weird little sliver.
Does this mean that if you use bar soap, you’re essentially rubbing a ton of germs all over yourself? Well, yeah, because germs cover pretty much everything! But coming into contact with them won’t automatically make you sick, otherwise we’d all be sick all the time.
Here, experts explain what’s really going on when you use a bar of soap to get clean. (Don’t worry, you can keep on using it if it makes you happy!)
Sure, there are probably some germs on your bar of soap.
The bulk of germs on your bar soap are probably from your own skin, Tatyana Petukhova, M.D., a dermatologist at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian, tells SELF.
It’s estimated that about half the cells in the human body are bacteria, and a lot of those live upon your skin, helping to make up what’s known as your skin microbiome. Other microorganisms like fungi are also part of this environment. Your skin’s microbiome is essential to your immune system as it helps protect you from invading pathogens. So, it’s not a big deal to deposit microorganisms from your skin onto your soap, then back onto your skin.
If you use a washcloth or loofah, that can also deposit germs onto your bar soap. These items contain many nooks and crannies that can harbor more microorganisms (and skin cells that could serve as a food source for potential pathogens), according to Philip Tierno, Ph.D., a clinical professor of microbiology and pathology at NYU Langone Health.
“Washcloths and loofahs can also stay moist for long periods of time, which promotes the growth of mold and [microorganisms such as] bacteria,” Kelly A. Reynolds, Ph.D., a professor and chair of community, environment, and policy The University of Arizona’s Zuckerman College of Public Health, tells SELF.
This may also be true for the ledge or holder where you rest your bar soap. If it’s constantly wet, that can allow for better microbial growth that then transfers to your soap.
Here’s how bar soap actually works on germs.
Compounds in bar soap called surfactants work to physically remove germs and debris as soon as you add water. Rubbing bar soap until it foams up washes away even more matter. (If your bar soap is labeled “antibacterial,” it also uses chemical agents to kill germs. But you don’t need to seek out antibacterial soap because it has no added health benefits, according to the CDC. Plain soap is quite effective at getting rid of germs on its own.)
Together, these mechanisms dilute the concentration of microorganisms such as bacteria on the soap, says Tierno.
“The [germs] literally wash down the drain,” Elizabeth Co, Ph.D., a senior lecturer in biology at Boston University, tells SELF. Well, some might not make it all the way to the drain, which is a good case for cleaning your tub and feet frequently.
How long does it take for this magic to happen? The CDC says it takes a minimum of 15 seconds for water and plain soap to wash away dirt and “transient” microorganisms (so, the ones you can pick up from touching other people and surfaces throughout the day).
Can bar soap ever make you sick?
It’s really unlikely that using bar soap will make you ill in some way, Dr. Petukhova says, since most of the microorganisms on it should come from you. “If you think about our natural microbiome … it usually doesn’t cause problems,” Dr. Petukhova says. Even when it comes to other bacteria your bar soap may pick up, the U.S. National Library of Medicine notes that less than 1 percent of bacteria make people sick. (That doesn’t speak to other pathogens that might thrive in a shower, like fungi, but it’s a general indication of why you don’t really need to freak out about bar soap.)
There are a few exceptions. One is if you have an open cut that allows pathogens to more easily enter your body, Tierno says, which can lead to conditions such as athlete’s foot (a fungal infection that can create a scaly, itchy rash). Also, if you’re immunocompromised for any reason and can’t fight back against a disease-causing invader, Dr. Petukhova says you’re at a higher risk of infection even from your own skin flora.
You could also be more likely to pick up some sort of illness or infection if you share your bar soap. “You don’t want to transfer germs from one person to another,” Tierno tells SELF.
Some people carry bacteria or other germs on their skin that aren’t disease-causing for them but could be for someone else, like Staphylococcus. It’s also possible that the person you share soap with could transmit a virus like the common cold or flu via the bar.
Even if you do share bar soap, the stars would have to align pretty perfectly for you to get sick. For instance, if you transferred a pathogen from your soap to your hands, didn’t clean well enough to wash it away, then ate a meal right after and got said pathogen in your mouth, it’s theoretically possible you could get ill—but it’s not probable, says Tierno.
Here’s how to get rid of as many bar soap germs as possible.
It’s not like ignoring these tips guarantees that your bar soap will somehow make you sick. But if you’re not into the prospect of putting soap with maximum germs all over your body, here are a few suggestions.
1. Wet the soap, then work up a lather for at least 15 seconds before you start washing yourself.
2. Apply your bar soap directly to your body instead of using something like a washcloth or loofah.
3. If you happen to be a staunch washcloth advocate, you could consider using a new, dry washcloth every time you shower. (But we’re not trying to needlessly add to your pile of laundry. If you feel fine using the same washcloth a few times in a row, keep doing what you’re doing.)
4. You can also toss your loofah into the washing machine on a regular basis, Tierno says. (That laundry note stands here, too—if you don’t usually wash your loofah and don’t want to start, that’s fine.)
5. Aim to keep your bar soap dry between uses. Consider using a soap holder with drainage slats if you don’t already, and try to keep it far from the spray of water.
Generally speaking, stainless steel and other metal surfaces are easier to clean and are nonporous, so they don’t have tiny holes that allow pathogens to thrive. But it’s really up to you and won’t make a huge difference to your health either way. Sometimes you just need a marble soap holder.
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