There’s no evidence that consumer antibacterial soaps and wash products “kill” the virus that causes COVID-19, contrary to what an online shopping aggregator claims.
Two news sites, meanwhile, gave readers the impression that antibacterial soaps are an effective defense against the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) by suggesting their use in articles they published about the virus and COVID-19.
The shopping site Iprice and news sites BusinessMirror and Rappler all mentioned Safeguard, an over-the-counter product of Procter and Gamble, in the same breath as COVID-19.
The World Health Organization has recommended frequent and proper hand cleaning with soap and water or alcohol-based hand rub or as the most effective protection against the new coronavirus. It does not specify the use of antibacterial soaps or any brand of soap.
WHO said there is no cure yet for COVID-19.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has cautioned the public on antibacterial soaps that are used with water:
There isn’t enough science to show that over-the-counter (OTC) antibacterial soaps are better at preventing illness than washing with plain soap and water. To date, the benefits of using antibacterial hand soap haven’t been proven.
The agency, which is reviewing active ingredients used in consumer antiseptic rubs and wash products, supports the use of plain soap and water for handwashing.
Consumer antiseptics are different from health care antiseptics used in hospitals, clinics, doctors’ offices and outpatient units.
In a page listing the prices of Safeguard products in the Philippines for this April, Iprice claimed Safeguard products contain antibacterial properties that not only help “fight against” but “kill bacteria and viruses such as coronavirus (COVID-19) and H1N1.”
Update: In response to FactRakers' fact check, Iprice corrected the page to remove references to Safeguard products being capable of fighting or killing the novel coronavirus. In its April 9 email to FactRakers, Iprice said:
We'd like to thank you for pointing out the error on the product's description on our website. Rest assured, we've amended and corrected this already. We value the accuracy of our pages and description, so we'd like to thank you for pointing this out.
BusinessMirror suggested “regular, and proper, handwashing with a trusted germicidal soap and warm water” as protection against the novel coronavirus infection. It then endorsed “handwashing with a trusted soap like Safeguard…(as) a cost-effective and easy measure to help prevent the spread of viruses or diseases.”
Rappler identified “proper handwashing, complete with clean running water—a trusted antibacterial soap like Safeguard, and all the vital steps recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO)” as a first defense against multiple drug-resistant organisms. “This includes the novel coronavirus, responsible for COVID-19,” it said.
BusinessMirror’s story was a feature that appeared in its Health and Fitness section. Rappler’s bylined article is a sponsored post in BrandRap and supplies a link to the online shopping site Lazada where Safeguard soaps and other products are promoted.
Like the FDA, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said:
To date, studies have shown that there is no added health benefit for consumers (this does not include professionals in the healthcare setting) using soaps containing antibacterial ingredients compared with using plain soap.
The American Academy of Pediatrics said while antibacterial soap kills most bacteria, it has a downside:
(I)t kills bad bacteria and good bacteria. The bad bacteria that survive get stronger and become harder to kill.
The FDA in 2016 banned 19 chemicals found in antibacterial soaps sold in the U.S. They include triclosan and triclocarban which it said are ingredients manufacturers have not proved are safe for daily use over a long period of time.
While noting some studies have raised the possibility that exposure to triclosan contributes to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics, the FDA stressed it does not have enough information to assess such a risk.
It also urged consumers to read the labels of OTC antiseptic or antibacterial products.
Triclosan and the 18 ingredients banned by the FDA are not among the ingredients listed in the labels of Safeguard soaps sold in the Philippines. Procter and Gamble said it has eliminated triclosan from it products and has an exit plan for its few remaining uses of triclocarban.
Explaining why soap and water work well against SARS-CoV-2 and other viruses, Palli Thordarson, a chemistry professor of the University of New South Wales, said soap contains fat-like substances called “amphiphiles,” some of them structurally similar to the lipids in the virus membrane. The soap molecules thus “compete” with the lipids in the virus membrane.
He said soap also dissolves other “noncovalent bonds” or the glue that hold virus—the proteins, RNA (ribonucleic acid) and the lipids—together.
The combined action of soap and water also “outcompetes” the interactions between the virus and the skin surface, causing the viruses to detach and “fall apart like a house of cards,” he added.
Thordarson noted that antibacterial products apart from alcohol and soap do not affect the virus structure a lot. He described many antibacterial products as “basically just an expensive version of soap in terms of how they act on viruses.”
The FDA said using antibacterial soaps and products may give people a “false sense of security” because it could make them think that these products protect them more than soap and water.
“That’s not correct,” it said.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, March 27). Show me the science - How to wash your hands. Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20200327072214/https://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/show-me-the-science-handwashing.html
Food and Drug Administration. (2019, May 16). 5 Things to know about Triclosan. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/5-things-know-about-triclosan
Food and Drug Administration. (2020, March 26). Topical antiseptic products: hand sanitizers and antibacterial soaps. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/drugs/information-drug-class/topical-antiseptic-products-hand-sanitizers-and-antibacterial-soaps
Food and Drug Administration. (2020, May 16). Antibacterial soap? You can skip it, use plain soap and water. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/antibacterial-soap-you-can-skip-it-use-plain-soap-and-water
Iprice. (n.d.) Safeguard price list April 2020 - Safeguard Philippines. Retrieved April 4, 2020, from https://iprice.ph/safeguard/
Korioth, T. (2019, May 15). Keep kids’ hands clean with soap and water, not antibacterial products. Retrieved from https://www.aappublications.org/news/2019/05/15/parentplus051519
Li, P. (2020, April 1). 5 hygiene points to remember this quarantine. Retrieved from https://www.rappler.com/brandrap/health-and-self/256633-hygiene-points-remember-coronavirus-quarantine
Procter & Gamble. (n.d.). Product Ingredients. Retrieved from https://ph.pg.com/product-ingredients/
Simple ways you can Safeguard your health from coronavirus. (2020, January 30). Retrieved from https://businessmirror.com.ph/2020/01/30/simple-ways-you-can-safeguard-your-health-from-coronavirus/
Thordarson, P. [@PalliThordarson]. (2020, March 8). 1/25 Part 1 - Why does soap work so well on the SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus and indeed most viruses? Because it is a self-assembled nanoparticle in which the weakest link is the lipid (fatty) bilayer. A two part thread about soap, viruses and supramolecular chemistry [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/PalliThordarson/status/1236549305189597189
World Health Organization. (n.d.). Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public: Myth busters. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/myth-busters