We were recently reminded of the importance of effective hand hygiene when we celebrated the SAVE LIVES: Clean Your Hands global campaign. Launched in 2009 and celebrated annually on 5 May (World Hand Hygiene Day) aims to maintain global promotion, visibility and sustainability of hand hygiene and to ‘bring people together’ in support of hand hygiene improvement around the world. Proper hand hygiene is considered the single most important method for preventing cross-contamination and reducing healthcare-associated infections.

With all the different soaps available to cleanse hands and whether these hand soap products could all be classified as similar, the short answer is a confusing “yes and no,” according to Dawn Yeomans, Ph.D. Hygiene Sciences & Partnerships Senior Advisor at GOJO Industries. We have all had the experience of using a soap that didn’t lather properly or that left our skin feeling tight and dry. This is because the soap formulation itself – as well as the practice related to dispensing the formulation – matter, for how the soap performs and feels during use, its germ and dirt removal efficacy, and how the soap leaves skin feeling after use. Here is a little science to help understand why something as simple as soap can perform so differently and what to look out for when choosing a hand soap for your facility.

What is soap, what does it contain, and how does it remove soils and germs?

All soaps essentially have the same ingredients: soap results from a chemical action between a salt and a fatty acid (a building block of fat). The result is soap or detergent that acts as a surfactant, a compound that forms what is called micelles (little balls of soap molecules that grab and trap dirt, oil, and germs). The type of surfactant helps determine the product’s lathering characteristics, skin feel, and rinse-ability.

By choosing oils that have specific molecular properties (in other words, choosing the right natural or synthetic fatty acids) and blending them in the right mixtures, it’s possible to create the results we want in our soaps – creamy, fluffy lather that rinses well and leaves the skin feeling soft and moisturised.

Washing hands with soap and water is important to both personal hygiene and public health. Through their ability to loosen and remove soil, they contribute to good personal hygiene.

Soaps also help to wash away germs. Some soaps contain specific antimicrobial ingredients that kill or inhibit bacteria that may cause odour or illnesses. Efficacy of the soap – both the strength of its soil removal plus the amount and type of germ reduction – depends on all of the ingredients in the formulation. Unfortunately, typically the stronger the soil removal, the harsher the product is toward the skin.

Harsh soaps can damage skin, causing dryness, tightness, and irritation

Skin is built like a brick wall – the bricks are protein-rich skin cells, and the mortar is made up of your skin’s natural lipids that strengthen the wall, keeping skin moisturised and protected from the outside environment.

With repeated handwashing, the surfactants in harsh soaps and cleansers remove the proteins and oils from your skin, breaking down the “mortar” between the bricks. This leads to “cracks” forming and allows water to evaporate from within your skin, leaving it dry, damaged, and vulnerable to outside germs and sources of irritation.

As skin gets drier and irritated, it’s unlikely that customers and staff will wash their hands properly since washing may cause burning, stinging, and further dryness and irritation.

What to look for in a skin-friendly cleanser for your facility

Luckily, much of the hand dryness and irritation can be avoided by choosing milder soaps and cleansers for use in your facilities.

Here are the important points to look for:

  • Moisturising and soothing ingredients

Soaps containing moisturising ingredients may be less harsh or drying to the skin. Examples include glycerine, ceramides, and hyaluronic acid. Natural oils such as avocado oil, shea butter, coconut oil, and jojoba oil are also good moisturising ingredients. Skin-soothing agents like vitamin E and aloe vera also help to leave skin feeling soft.

  • Products with “Mild” or “Suitable for Sensitive Skin” claims

Mild soap softens and soothes skin because it does not strip away its natural nutrients and oils, thus giving the appearance of healthy-looking skin and reducing symptoms of skin conditions like psoriasis and eczema.

  • Automatic soap dispensers

In general, no-touch, automatic soap dispensers are a great option to help reduce germs. However, it’s important to avoid the practice of “topping-off” or refilling bulk dispensers since this can lead to bacterial contamination.

Things you should avoid:

  • Harsh surfactants

It’s important to choose the right soap or cleanser for everyday tasks; if your hands are not very heavily soiled, a milder cleanser will do the job. While harsh surfactants such as sodium dodecyl (lauryl) sulphate are very effective at extreme soil removal, they also have the potential to dry and damage skin more than others. Combinations of sodium laurate sulphate (SLES), which is often used in liquid cleansers, with other surfactants such as cocamidopropyl betaine can result in an overall milder product.

  • Antibacterial actives

In most settings, “cosmetic” hand soaps should be adequate for customers or guests to wash away germs. Antibacterial soaps could be considered where there may be exposure to a lot of germs that could cause illness, such as situations including food handling in restaurants and in other settings.

  • Poor lather

Lathering is important since lathering and scrubbing hands create friction to lift dirt, grease, and germs from the skin.

  • Products that don’t rinse well

Even though it sounds counterintuitive, water and excessive rinsing further dry out your skin, so it’s important to use soap that rinses easily from the skin, making sure product residue is not left behind.

For more information and help in choosing the right soap for your facility, visit the GOJO International Hand Soaps site: www.gojo.com/en-int/product-catalog/hand-soap