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Revealed: antibacterial products you don’t need

In many situations they simply aren’t necessary

Antibacterial products

Do you need antibacterial products?

From antibacterial washing-up liquid to germ-busting handwash, Which? research has found that you may be buying antibacterial products you don’t need.

We handed five antibacterial products to two expert scientists and asked them to assess whether the claims were true, and whether you need them at all.

For all the antibacterial products, the experts concluded that in many situations they simply weren’t necessary. This was because either there was a simple way of achieving the same effect, such as thorough hand washing, or you were unlikely to become ill that way in the first place. We found that the claims were generally true – though some were vague.

Which? members can read the full article ‘Antibacterial products you don’t need’ in the June 2014 issue of Which? magazine. If you’re not a member you can sign up for a trial for a £1 to get instant access to all our investigations and reviews.

Five antibacterial products

  • Dettol and Carex handwashes – our experts said that there is evidence to suggest washing your hands for thirty seconds with standard soap can be very effective at killing bacteria and removing viruses – but you do have to wash your hands thoroughly to get similar results. 
  • Fairy Eucalyptus Antibacterial Action – standard washing-up liquids will also kill bacteria because they are antiseptics. And P&G, which makes Fairy, tested the product against washing with water alone – so there isn’t evidence to suggest it’s better than standard liquids.
  • Dettol Antibacterial Laundry Cleanser – this product is used in addition to detergent and kills bacteria. It’s possible for bacteria and viruses to survive on clothes, but there’s not much evidence that people get infections from clothing, apart from some studies in hospitals on MRSA. Normal washing will kill bacteria and a bleach-based detergent will do even more.
  • Savlon hand wipes – these wipes probably will protect against germs as claimed but it’s not clear to what extent. Savlon confirmed the claims about germs relate only to bacteria so no help if you’re trying to avoid colds and flu. If you’ve got access to water and soap use that.

If you’re not bothered about antibacterial claims visit our reviews of washing up liquids and laundry detergents to find out which we rated as Best Buys.

What you think about germs 

When we surveyed Which? members to find your views on these types of antibacterial products we also uncovered cynicism, with most of you expressing some doubts about the benefits provided. 

Yet half of you said that you would choose the product with the antibacterial claim, if price wasn’t a factor. This suggests that the germ-free claims probably do influence how we shop.

Which? Editor Richard Headland said: ‘There are a few instances where antibacterial products may provide additional protection, but consumers should think about whether they really need products with antibacterial claims or whether you can achieve similar results another way such as simply using soap and water.’

What the companies said 

Savlon said: These wipes are a cosmetic product and the levels of antiseptic are consistent with a cosmetic rather than a medicine. The claims comply with the relevant legal requirements and are based on the known activities of the two antiseptic ingredients. 

Fairy said: The microbiological efficacy of Fairy Eucalyptus Antibacterial Action washing-up liquid has been fully tested. We do believe it provides an important extra measure of protection. The claims focus on sponges, as they are a critical implement that can harbour unwanted germs. Testing against water is relevant as a negative control.

Carex said: There is a role in public health for hand washing with ordinary soap – but consumers do not wash their hands as frequently or as well as they should. Carex is more effective and faster acting than ordinary soaps in European Standard antibacterial tests. The products moisturise, nourish and have odour protection as well, which is the added value compared with a standard soap.

Dettol said: Not all soaps contain ingredients that effectively kill bacteria. Dettol Handwash contains antibacterial ingredients proven to kill 99.9% bacteria. Washing clothes at lower temperatures saves energy and is gentler, but may not kill bacteria effectively. The addition of Dettol Laundry Cleanser kills 99.9% bacteria.

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