Hand-washing with soap and water is a basic daily routine for most. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), regular hand washing is one of the best ways to banish germs to avoid getting sick and spreading an infection to others. Yes, alcohol-based hand sanitizer works when you don’t have access to a sink, but doctors and scientists agree that washing your hands for 20 seconds is much more effective at getting rid of dirt, grime, bacteria, and germs. It’s important to earn about the various ingredients and formulas available—and why the soaps listed here rate as some of the best in their respective categories—so you can get a handle on the perfect product for your skin, style, and budget.
- BEST OVERALL: Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day Liquid Hand Soap
- RUNNER-UP: Dr. Bronner’s Organic Lemongrass-Lime Sugar Soap
- BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: Softsoap Antibacterial Liquid Hand Soap
- BEST ANTIMICROBIAL: Liquid Dial Antimicrobial Liquid Soap
- BEST FOAMING: Method Foaming Hand Soap
- BEST LUXURY: JR Watkins Gel Hand Soap, Lemon
- BEST SCENT: Puracy Natural Gel Hand Wash Soap
- BEST FOR DRY SKIN: Live Clean Fresh Water Hydrating Liquid Hand Soap
What to Consider When Buying the Best Hand Soap
There are plenty of options when it comes to choosing hand soaps. While some proclaim antibacterial formulas are proven to kill up to 99.9 percent of germs, all soap, used correctly, is equally effective in getting rid of germs. According to the CDC, studies have not found any added health benefits from using soaps containing antibacterial ingredients when compared with plain soap.
Bar, liquid, and foam formulas all work effectively, but liquid and foam are more conveniently dispensed for less mess. These varieties are also more likely to have added moisturizers, so they are less apt to dry the skin. Soaps with added moisturizers such as colloidal oatmeal and shea or cocoa butter work best for dry skin. Keep the following in mind when shopping for hand soap.
Most liquid soaps are made with a type of lye called potassium hydroxide (also known as caustic potash), oil, water, fragrance, and added moisturizer. Potassium hydroxide is the agent that causes saponification of oils: the process that involves the conversion of fat, oil, or lipid into soap. So while it may seem alarming to apply lye to your skin, once saponification occurs (about 24 to 48 hours after the lye and oils have been mixed), it’s no longer caustic. Combining a potassium hydroxide solution with carrier oils—often including palm oil, olive oil, coconut oil, almond oil, and/or jojoba oil—creates liquid soap.
Some soaps also contain parabens and phthalates. Parabens are a common preservative found in lotions, shampoos, body wash, and many cosmetics. Although a small amount of parabens is safe for use on the skin, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC) says that cumulative exposure can disrupt hormone function, which can increase the risk of breast cancer and reproductive toxicity. Phthalates are plasticizers used as carriers to help make the scent linger and have been linked to endocrine disruption. Fortunately, many commercial hand soap producers no longer use parabens and phthalates in soaps.
Fragrance-Free vs. Scented
While unscented soaps are available, many people like a fragrance and may even “feel” cleaner using a soap that imparts a fresh scent. In reality, the scent has nothing to do with the soap’s cleaning ability. If you have sensitive skin, some artificial fragrances can cause contact dermatitis or a rash, so opt for fragrance-free products. If you want just a touch of fragrance, stick with soaps scented with essential oils rather than synthetic fragrances.
Liquid vs. Foaming
Liquid soap requires water and friction to create a lather, while foaming formulas—a diluted form of liquid hand soap—use a specialized dispenser to aerate the soap as it comes out, creating a foamy texture. Foaming soaps are popular for use in an office, school, and other public washrooms because they are economical: They’re infused with air, so less actual soap is used per pump.
While a recent study published in the American Journal of Infection Control indicated that foam hand wash may not be as effective in reducing hand bacterial load as liquid soap, for the most part, efficacy is determined by the duration of the soap’s contact with your skin.
Our Top Picks
Washing your hands with soap and water can prevent the spread of colds, flu, and other viruses. Now that you’ve studied up, you’re ready to wash up—and choose from among some of the best hand soaps for a healthy home.
The Mrs. Meyer’s brand is known for refreshingly scented cleaning products, so it’s no surprise that the company’s hand soap is winning fans. While not organic, the soap is paraben- and phthalate-free, contains no artificial colors, and 98 percent of its ingredients are plant-derived. It’s an olive oil-based soap with moisturizing aloe vera and lightly scented with lavender and orange essential oils. The brand is cruelty-free, uses partially recycled plastics for its packaging, and is reasonably priced for a mostly natural, higher-end brand.
Dr. Bronner is a well-recognized producer of organic castile (plant-based fats and oils) soaps that retain the glycerin—a by-product of the saponification, known for superb moisturizing qualities—that other manufacturers tend to remove from their products. This particular Dr. Bronner’s formula includes organic coconut, olive, and hemp oils that won’t dry out your skin. Sugar gives the soap its caramel color and sweet scent, and is a natural humectant (a substance used to reduce the loss of moisture).
Dr. Bronner’s multipurpose soap is for far more than hand washing. It’s small-print, old-school label proclaims its effectiveness for the body and hair, shaving, brushing teeth, rinsing fruit, cleaning dishes, scrubbing toilets, bathing dogs—you can even apply it to plants for controlling aphids. It’s on the pricey side, but with so many uses you’re likely to get your money’s worth.
Softsoap, the go-to hand soap brand for large facilities, is inexpensive and clinically proven to eliminate 99.9 percent of bacteria. It features added moisturizers to leave hands feeling soft, and the brand is known for its large variety of scents. The fragrances can be pretty intense, in fact, but some are stronger than others. For solid germ-killing at a bargain price, Softsoap is pretty solid.
Antibacterial soaps feature a chemical agent that specifically kills bacteria cells. While antibacterial products prevent the development of bacteria, antimicrobial soaps prevent the spread of bacterial, fungi, parasites, and some viruses. Dial’s Original Gold antimicrobial liquid hand soap features a broad-spectrum antimicrobial agent that kills 99.99 percent of common germs. It’s formulated for frequent hand washers to remove dirt and bacteria and rinse cleanly, while moisturizing agents combat dryness. Antimicrobial properties do come at an added cost, so Dial’s Original Gold will be one of the pricier soaps on the shelf.
Method—known for attractive packaging, naturally derived ingredients, and fantastic fragrances—makes an excellent foaming hand soap. It boasts hydrating aloe vera and vitamins to keep skin soft and is free of alcohol, aluminum, parabens, and phthalates. Method soap gives you the lather of a foam soap and a light scent of natural sea minerals,
J.R. Watkins gel hand soap is made from plant-based ingredients with a gel base that gently but effectively removes dirt, bacteria, and pungent odors. The gel formula doesn’t produce as much suds as regular liquid soap, because gels are water-based cleansers that consist of mild ingredients, making them ideal for folks with sensitive skin. J.R. Watkins gel soap does not contain parabens, dyes, or phthalates—nor does it have additional moisturizing agents, so it may be a bit drying. Its retro-style bottle lends an attractive touch to the bathroom.
Made from plants, minerals, and water, Puracy Natural Hand Soap is a non-toxic, effective, and versatile cleanser that will get your hands squeaky clean. Scented with French lavender blossoms and vanilla bean essential oils, the soap offers a pleasing, natural aroma that’s not overpowering. The gel-based soap features a proprietary blend of renewable ingredients and is free from harsh chemicals and fumes. It’s fortified with vitamin E, sea salt, and aloe vera to naturally hydrate and balance all skin types. It’s also child and pet safe, hypoallergenic, and safe for greywater and septic systems.
Hand soaps can leave skin parched because they strip oil as well as dirt and bacteria. Fortunately, Fresh Water’s Hydrating Liquid Hand Soap blends vitamin E, panthenol, rosemary, and chamomile to gently cleanse and moisturize. Made with 97 percent renewable and sustainable plant and water-based ingredients, the soap has no parabens, sulfates, and phthalates and is cruelty-free.
If you like to keep it simple, this Everyone multipurpose product can be used as body wash, shampoo, shaving gel, bubble bath, and of course hand soap. Made with pure essential oils and plant extracts like aloe vera, calendula, white tea, chamomile, and nutrient-rich vitamins B5 and E, this soap will leave your skin clean, soft, and smelling great. It’s also paraben-free, cruelty-free, gluten-free, GMO-free, and synthetic color-, dye-, and synthetic fragrance-free. Clearly, Everyone prioritizes a healthy planet as well as a clean, soft, pleasant-smelling population.
If frequent hand washing makes your skin irritated and inflamed, try First Botany’s gentle formulation. It’s all about essential oils, including tea tree, peppermint, coconut, jojoba, spearmint, and grapefruit to help calm skin swelling and redness. The hands-down star ingredient is tea tree oil, renowned for its healing and antifungal properties—but keep in mind that this essential oil does have a strong aroma some folks find overpowering. If the scent doesn’t bother you, you’ll be able to treat chapped, dry hands to some much needed TLC.
FAQs About Your New Hand Soap
Check out the answers to consumers’ most common questions about the effectiveness of hand soap against germs and bacteria.
Q. Does hand soap actually reduce the spread of bacteria?
Yes. The CDC says that handwashing with soap helps lift dirt, grease, and microbes—including disease-causing germs and bacteria—from the skin so they can then be rinsed off of hands, which helps prevent infections.
Q. Should hand soap contain alcohol?
No. According to the CDC, there is no added health benefit for using soaps containing antibacterial or alcohol-based ingredients. However, the CDC recommends using a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol when soap and water are not available.
Q. How long should you wash your hands?
The CDC recommends washing your hands for at least 20 seconds—equivalent to two rounds of the song “Happy Birthday.”