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For Soap to Be Effective, Does It Need to Be Sudsy?

The cleaning industry wants to keep you hooked on pointless bubbles

I’m sure that the pandemic has put a dent in the natural cleaning industry’s profits. Like, lavender essential oil is nice and all, but I’d feel better knowing a public door handle has been cleaned with bleach. Similarly, I’d feel better using some heavy-duty suds-producing soap to wash my hands than a mild, chemical-free alternative. 

That’s not entirely me being paranoid –– bleach has been proven to kill nearly all germs, while milder natural cleaning products just aren’t as effective. As for the soap? Well, maybe that is a little bit influenced by paranoia. 

Soap, in its most basic form, is actually just fat or oil mixed with water and salt that’s undergone a heating process. There’s nothing inherently antibacterial or germ-killing to it. Still, it’s perfectly capable of cleaning our hands of germs and bacteria. Rather than kill the germs, the soap just removes them — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; so long as we rub our hands long enough and produce friction, the soap will do its job. 

Notably, the CDC says nothing about producing suds. They do say to produce a lather, which is defined by Merriam-Webster as a “foam or froth.” But lather doesn’t inherently mean bubbles or suds, though many of us are accustomed to believing that bubbles = clean. Because of that association, many cleaning products like dish soap, body wash and hand soap have added surfactants that produce foam or bubbles. Their purpose is entirely psychological: They’re added because we think bubbles produce a better clean, and we think bubbles produce a better clean because these chemicals have been added. 

The only case where bubbles actually do correlate to cleanliness is when we’re using a product we know will produce bubbles when used properly. If your usual hand soap isn’t producing any bubbles, that probably means you aren’t using enough of it. 

Otherwise, hand soap that doesn’t produce bubbles works just as well. There’s no real harm in the bubbles if you like them when washing your hands. However, some washing machines and dishwashers call for low-suds cleaners, because they can potentially overflow with soap that creates too many bubbles. Some people also prefer to use body products that don’t contain surfactants, because they find them drying. Many shampoos and body soaps are now formulated without sodium lauryl sulfate, the most common surfactant, or with milder alternative surfactants. 

If bubbles make your brain happy, it’s fine. I’m more concerned about you washing your hands, period. Those bubbles might be partially why your hands are so dry, though, so if bubbles are your friend, lotion should be, too.