As a germophobic, I almost consume a soap bar each day due to the touch of a door handle or other daily used items around the house. This is instigated due to OCD perhaps.

This is unhealthy and bad for the skin (As using too much is harmful and thus there needs to be some control over the issue. One proposed by someone was that just washing the hands by water and not consuming the soap.

Would washing hands with only water be equally effective in most common cases?

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    While interesting, this doesn't seem like a notable claim and should probably be closed. Jan 7, 2016 at 16:09
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    I would think the toweling off afterwards, might affect some of the oil removal that the soap would've done. Also, I think this should remain open as this claim can be rephrased as 'You must wash your hands with soap and water to effectively clean your hands'. Which a notable claim.
    – jmathew
    Jan 7, 2016 at 16:34
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    An interesting twist to this: as a germaphobe that is constantly washing their hands, consuming almost an entire bar of soap in the day, can you accept that less frequent soapy-hand-washing is actually sufficient, in an intellectual sense. If that less frequent soapy-hand-washing is sufficient from a statistical/medicinal perspective, then another valuable question might be whether the continuous no-soap washing is sufficient to assuage your OCD from your intuitive sense of germs. You may do the cost/benefit and find that it's actually a great trade to use no-soap most of the time, and
    – Cort Ammon
    Jan 9, 2016 at 1:48
  • soap only some of the time (which does the real hand cleaning).
    – Cort Ammon
    Jan 9, 2016 at 1:49
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    @ZachMierzejewski ... really? I'm not a participant on Skeptics, but it seems to me that you and your upvoters are setting the bar for "notable" absurdly high. The belief that soap serves a hygiene purpose is clearly held by most people, since almost everyone (at the very least in the west) uses it whenever they wash their hands. If this were false, it would mean that the entire soap industry is based upon nothing but pseudoscience and fraud. If a belief which is held by most human beings and sustains a multi-billion dollar industry isn't "notable", then what is?
    – Mark Amery
    Jan 9, 2016 at 11:03

3 Answers 3


Washing your hands with plain water of a normal temperature is significantly less able to effectively sanitise against bacteria, viruses, and many protozoa. The oil on your skin will hold pathogens pretty effectively. The detergent in the soap helps to break down the cell walls in some types of prokaryotes (bacteria) and eukaryotes (other living microbes) and also to remove the oil so that virus particles can be removed in sufficient numbers. Different soaps and detergents will have varying levels of effectiveness. The CDC provides quite a bit of information about sanitisation. This page explains how to wash your hands effectively to remove pathogens.

Here is a quote from a study specifically comparing hand washing with and without soap:

Handwashing with water alone reduced the presence of bacteria to 23% ... Handwashing with plain soap and water reduced the presence of bacteria to 8% ... The effect did not appear to depend on the bacteria species (PubMed 21318017).

The above results may or may not be similar to those for viruses or protozoa. Also, the amount and type of oil on the skin before washing probably plays a large role, as probably does the method and material used to dry the skin. Different situations call for different approaches and levels of sanitation.

Interestingly, the same study mentioned that no specific instructions were given for the washing technique, other than using a paper towel to dry:

Participants assigned to handwashing were asked to wash their hands as they would normally do, without instructions on length of time or thoroughness. The volunteers allocated to handwashing were then provided with a paper towel to dry their hands ... Participants took on average 12 seconds to wash their hands with water alone, and 14 seconds to wash their hands with water and soap (PMC3037063).

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    The thing about pathogens is that you can rarely eliminate them all. The better you wash, the less remain. How clean is necessary depends on all sorts of factors, such as what pathogens are around, how strong the participants' immune systems are, and what is being done with the hands. One level of sanitation is not appropriate to all cases and all people. Some pathogens (such as common bacteria) take a large number to cause infection while others (such as HIV) take much less. At the same time, different pathogens infect different types of human cells (different tissues).
    – Michael
    Jan 7, 2016 at 11:45
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    ... very very dilute solutions and minimal amounts of product. || Realise that it's an obsession (we all have them somewhere) AND that in fact killing off more than major germs is WORSE for your health long term. Learn that living with SOME germ is better for you. Now convince yourself of what you now know to be true. That's the hard part :-). Enjoy. Jan 7, 2016 at 12:17
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    @RussellMcMahon -- Perhaps, but it may not work linearly. The drying procedure is probably important as well since the scrubbing involved can take off some oil pretty effectively, depending on the materials and methods used. Soap can get into small crevices that a towel cannot, but rubbing can remove skin cells, along with whatever is on the skin. Also, one would need to read the details of that study to see the methods used in both groups.
    – Michael
    Jan 7, 2016 at 12:28
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    @Haider: Soap was there all the way back to the Sumerians. It's the knowledge of what actually causes illness, infection etc. that made people use soap -- in the appropriate amount, and at the appropriate time -- to reduce mortality. Proper food, availability of medical aid etc. all contributed to that development. The obsession with sterility in everyday environments is a rather recent occurrence, and actually detrimental to overall population health (as opposed to sterility in, say, hospitals).
    – DevSolar
    Jan 7, 2016 at 15:39
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    "Washing your hands with plain water of a normal temperature is significantly less able to effectively sanitise against bacteria, viruses, and many protozoa." According to your citation, the difference is only 15%, and that after hand washing removes 77% of germs. Your overall post appears to suggest that hand washing without soap is a waste, when in reality hand washing without soap still results in removing over 3/4 of the bacteria on the hands. Done repeatedly throughout the day would result in cleaner hands than someone who infrequently washes with soap.
    – Adam Davis
    Jan 7, 2016 at 16:26

Washing your hands with plain water does reduce germs.

It just does not remove as many of them as using soap would.

Source: Same link as Michael, and sorry for the hijack -- I know this to be true from University (where I studied Biology), but could not have come up with an English language source ad-hoc.

Handwashing with water alone reduced the presence of bacteria to 23% (p < 0.001). Handwashing with plain soap and water reduced the presence of bacteria to 8% (comparison of both handwashing arms: p < 0.001).

So, if...

  • you are rationally able to tell the difference between objects that could realistically carry a significant load of pathogens and objects that should not, and
  • washing with water alone after touching the latter allows you to

    • get around your phobia / OCD, and
    • reduces washing-induced skin problems for you,

...then by all means do wash with water alone if there is no rational reason to strive for more sterility.

That being said, and to avoid being misunderstood, after handling the former group of objects (toilet, pets, trash, ...) or before handling food, everybody should wash hands with soap, obviously.

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    To the anonymous downvoter: Note that I am answering somebody admitting to being driven by phobic behaviour, not by facing an actual health hazard. That makes for a very different recommendation. Do I tell my son to use soap after visiting the toilet? Of course I do. Do I wash my hands with soap before preparing food? Of course I do. Do I tell somebody that washing with water only, after touching something in his own house, which is probably much cleaner than the average house given his condition? So he might be able to stop damaging his hands by excessive washing? Of course I do.
    – DevSolar
    Jan 7, 2016 at 15:31
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    You may also have received a downvote because your answer does not cite any sources or papers. Unlike other sites, that is a requirement here.
    – JasonR
    Jan 7, 2016 at 15:45
  • @user19555: Sorry, I did not really pay attention which of the SE sites I was posting to. Hijacked Michael's link, because it's a) readily available and b) supporting my point as well as his. ;-)
    – DevSolar
    Jan 7, 2016 at 15:53
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    No worries on the hijack. What is most important is that people get their answers, especially when the topic relates to health.
    – Michael
    Jan 7, 2016 at 16:31
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    I was the (a?) downvoter, and @user19555 got it right - I was more concerned by the lack of sourced info rather than your tone or the angle you chose to address the question. Now that you've expanded your answer, the downvote has been duly changed to an upvote! Jan 8, 2016 at 8:58

If one would move his hands while washing hands with raw water, would that help in getting rid of bacteria and germs?

Yes. In fact it can reduce the bacteria on your hands by 77%. This is a significant decrease in bacteria and other contaminants. The primary action responsible for this is the mechanical scrubbing, along with the flowing water to carry away loosened dirt and contaminants.

If so, then why need for a soap?

Soap improves the action of hand washing. Soap and water together with the mechanical action of rubbing reduce the bacteria by 92%.

So soap adds an additional 15% improvement over hand washing with water alone.

Handwashing with water alone reduced the presence of bacteria to 23%. Handwashing with plain soap and water reduced the presence of bacteria to 8%. (source)

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    Notes: 1) Yes, the link is the same as used in two other answers, but this one attempts to more directly answer the questions asked, rather than simply presenting the data without application. 2) This is not a medical site, and without specific references or studies suggestions as to what actions you should take are not suitable for this site, so I won't address the implied question as to whether you should or should not reduce your soap usage.
    – Adam Davis
    Jan 7, 2016 at 16:16
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    Going from 23% to 8% is a 65% reduction, not 15%. That is, adding soap removes 2/3rds of the pathogens which would be left by using water alone.
    – Ben Voigt
    Jan 7, 2016 at 19:50
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    I worded my post very carefully. If I wanted to make your point, I would use different words. Consider adding a post of your own, but comments are not a good place to get into a discussion about the relative merits of these two perspectives.
    – Adam Davis
    Jan 7, 2016 at 19:55
  • (Or is it 92% ÷ 77% = 19% improvement?)
    – Ry-
    Jan 9, 2016 at 7:03

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