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What's the difference between antibacterial hand soap and natural hand soap?

Last Updated: August 05, 2021

These days, you’re probably washing your hands more frequently than you used to, but is your conventional or antibacterial soap all that it’s cut out to be? Learn the truth about your run-of-the-mill hand soap and why going natural may be better for your hands — and your health.

For decades, experts have implored us to wash our hands well and often to prevent the spread of disease. Research shows that people touch their face an average of 23 times each hour — 44 percent of the time coming into contact with a mucous membrane, meaning things can pass into your body much easier through that mucous. Touching your face with your filthy, germy hands is one of the easiest ways to catch a whole host of viral and bacterial illnesses, including MRSA, influenza, colds — and coronavirus, which has made all of us start washing our hands to a bit more to prevent illness.

Now, you might think you need the strongest possible antimicrobial or antibacterial soap to keep your hands germ-free, but that’s just not true. Regular soap — including natural soap — will get your hands just as clean as soaps containing biocides and pesticides.

Find out what makes natural hand soap even better than the big-brand bar soap you grew up using.

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But first, what is soap?

Child holding hands under running faucet of water with parent standing behind

Soap is a combination of fats or oils, an alkali, and water. When these ingredients are combined in the right amounts, they turn into soap through a chemical process called saponification.

Soaps been around for a while in a similar format, almost 2,300 years, according to Pliny the Elder, when the Phoenicians and then the Romans learned how to use it and make it.

What is the difference between hand soap and body soap?

Person washing hands with Grove bar soap

Soap labeled “hand soap” often has stronger ingredients, since it’s meant to remove germs, grease, and dirt from hands.

Body soap or body wash, by comparison, is generally milder than hand soap and gentler on sensitive skin.

Many conventional hand soaps are heavily scented, and those in liquid form come in a rainbow of colors, compared to most body washes, which are pearly white and only lightly scented.

Natural soaps don't use artificial fragrances or chemicals in their recipes. Instead they use natural ingredients to clean and provide moisture like tea tree oil and shea butter.

But these differences don’t matter much when it comes to germs — both hand soap and body soap will put the kibosh on nasty bugs.

Wondering what the difference between soap and sanitizer is? We've figured that out for you too — have a look.

Grove Tip

When should you use hand sanitizer?

When you can’t wash your hands with good old, plain soap and water, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with an alcohol content between 60 and 95 percent will suffice until you can make it to the sink.

Alcohol breaks down that protective lipid membrane on some bacteria and viruses, including coronaviruses and influenza viruses. Alcohol-free hand sanitizers and those with lower concentrations of alcohol may not kill all types of germs and may only reduce the growth of microbes.

Browse this list of the top-rated hand sanitizers at Grove by actual Grove members to find one that's right for you.

How does hand soap kill germs?

Grove hand and dish vessel on the side of a sink

Soap doesn’t actually kill viruses, since viruses aren’t alive. Some bacteria and viruses — including coronaviruses and influenza viruses — have lipid membranes that keep bacteria alive and allow viruses to infect cells.

What soap does is cover every inch of your hands with its pin-shaped molecules, each of which has a water-loving head and an oil-and-fat-loving tail.

When these molecules come into contact with germs, the oil-and-fat-loving tails wedge themselves into the germs’ lipid membranes and rip them apart, killing bacteria and deactivating viruses. The remains of the germs are trapped in tiny soap bubbles called micelles, which are washed away when you rinse your hands.

Grove Tip

Moisturization is key

All that handwashing can cause dry skin, which is more susceptible to tiny cracks that serve as an entry point for microorganisms looking to make you sick.

Keep your hands moisturized during washes with a moisturizing hand soap or between washings with a natural hydrating hand cream. If you're hands get dry and cracked while washing dishes, you can even find a moisturizing dish and hand soap to try out.

What is the healthiest hand soap?

There are numerous foaming hand soap or liquid hand soap options available in store aisles and online, but not all of them are created equal — or are equally as safe on your hands and the environment.

Below we have the breakdown of different types of soap, including antibacterial, conventional, and natural soaps, along with the pros and cons of each, plus the ingredients you should look out for.

What is antibacterial hand soap?

Antibacterial hand soaps (and hand sanitizers) have various chemicals you won’t find in regular or natural hand soaps. The purpose of these chemicals is to kill germs dead.

And while they do kill bacteria with a fierce vengeance — including the good ones that benefit your skin and your health — they don’t deactivate viruses. Rather, it’s the soap itself that destroys the lipid membrane and disables the virus.

Some of the ingredients in antibacterial hand soaps and hand sanitizers aren’t good for your skin, and with repeated use, they can do a number on your health, too.

Look out for these three common antibacterial hand soap ingredients that have also led to antibiotic-resistant bacteria:


Triclosan is an antibacterial chemical associated with a decrease in thyroid hormone levels, and it may cause skin cancer when it’s exposed to ultraviolet rays.

Triclosan was banned in antibacterial soaps and body washes a couple of years ago, but it’s still commonly used in hand sanitizers and hand wipes.

Benzalkonium chloride

Benzalkonium chloride is a biocide chemical that is associated with severe skin, eye, and respiratory irritation as well as allergies.

The Food and Drug Administration notes that it lacks evidence showing the safety and effectiveness of this chemical. Still the organization is allowing manufacturers to study it for a year and submit their findings.

Benzethonium chloride

An antimicrobial agent, benzethonium chloride is linked to immune system damage, leading to severe allergic reactions or impairment in the ability to fight disease and repair the body’s tissues.

Like benzalkonium chloride, this chemical lacks evidence of its safety and effectiveness and is currently being studied to learn more.

What is conventional hand soap?

Regular hand soap doesn’t contain the questionable antimicrobial agents found in antibacterial hand soap, but it contains a long list of other ingredients that can cause health problems with frequent, repeated use.

These ingredients include:

Artificial fragrances

Synthetic fragrances contain lots of ingredients that aren’t required to be listed on a product label.

These ingredients in the scents can include phthalates, which are associated with hormone disruption and birth defects, and other ingredients linked to organ toxicity, allergies, and cancer.


Parabens are a class of preservatives that mimic the behavior of estrogen in the body and are associated with developmental toxicity, cancer, and hormone disruption.

Parabens are also toxic to the environment.

Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS)

Commonly used in hand soaps to increase foaming power, SLS is linked to hormone and reproductive problems as well as skin, lung, and eye irritation.

It’s also associated with organ system toxicity.

What is natural hand soap?

Natural hand soap is made from natural ingredients that aren’t a risk to human health. They’re typically formulated with minerals and plant-based or organic ingredients, including essential oils and plant extracts like shea butter, coconut oil, or almond oil. They don't use harsh chemicals like sulfates, parabens, phthalates, synthetic dyes, artificial fragrances, petroleum-based ingredients, and other harmful substances.

Natural hand soaps are usually nontoxic, biodegradable, vegan, and eco-friendly, and they’re generally not tested on animals.

Natural hand soap — whether it’s made by your Aunt Mabel, purchased at the local farmer’s market, or found online here at Grove Collaborative — is exactly as effective as conventional hand soap when it comes to dismantling viruses and killing harmful bacteria. You can find natural hand soap in bar, liquid, foaming, or tablet and powder form.

What is the best natural hand soap?

Natural bar hand soaps

Natural bar hand soap lathers up in your hands. Rubbing the bar directly on your skin is very effective at dislodging and removing dirt and grease. Made from natural ingredients and fragrances like tea tree oil, shea butter, coconut oil, and aloe vera, plus essential oils for scent, these bar soaps are much gentler on your family's skin and the planet once they go down the drain.

Natural bar soap is typically less expensive than liquid hand soap, and its packaging is usually more eco-friendly.

However, bar soap can harbor bacteria, and if it’s stored in a wet spot, natural vegan bar soap may turn mushy.

Natural liquid hand soaps

Liquid natural hand soap is made of similar ingredients to natural bar soap, it is easy to dispense, and it tends to keep the area around the sink tidier than bar soap does.

Liquid hand soap often contains moisturizers to keep your skin hydrated, which is important when you’re washing your hands frequently.

However, liquid hand soap generally comes in plastic bottles, which are unfriendly to the environment — unless you buy nontoxic hand soap refill pouches and use a soap dispenser.

Natural foaming hand soaps, hand soap tablets, and hand soap powders

Soap tablets, handwash powders, and natural foaming soap refills are more eco-friendly than liquid soap, since they’re usually packaged in paper or aluminum. Creating a foaming soap once dissolved, these powders and tablets are usually made of natural ingredients like sodium bicarbonate, aloe vera, citric acid, and essential oils.

You simply fill your reusable soap dispenser with water, drop in the tablet, and wait about a half hour for the tablet to dissolve.

For handwash powder, simply use the powder in place of traditional soap. Nontoxic hand soap tablet refills require less postage and packaging than liquid refills, since they’re small, lightweight, and compact.

Looking for the best hand soap to buy?

Image of parent washing hands in sink with Grove Pumpkin Spice hand soap with child watching on side

Browse the 8 best natural hand soaps to use right now

These 8 hand soaps are top-rated by actual Grove members. Read their reviews to find which soap is right for you and your family.

Grove's quick tip: How to correctly wash your hands

Not even the most powerful antibacterial hand soaps will kill germs if you don’t use them correctly.

Here’s how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest you wash your hands.

1. Wet hands and apply soap

Wet your hands with clean, warm running water. Turn off the tap to conserve water, and apply the soap.

2. Lather and scrub

Work up a lather with the soap. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds — get the palms and backs of your hands, between the fingers, under the nails, and around the wrists.

3. Rinse

Rinse your hands thoroughly with clean, warm running water to wash away dirt, grease, and microbes.

4. Dry

Germs can be transferred more easily to and from your hands when they’re wet. Use a towel to completely dry your hands, or let them air dry before you touch anything.

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