Cottage Q&A: Antibacterial soap and the septic

A close-up of black male hands covered in soap bubbles By fizkes/Shutterstock

I was washing my hands at the cottage this morning using antibacterial hand soap after returning from a trip to town. While silently singing “Happy Birthday” to myself two times, I was also looking at a little poster prepared by the Redstone Lake Cottagers Association about the dos and don’ts relative to the septic system. Antibacterial soaps and other compounds are on the septic Don’t list, but such soap is now de rigueur in today’s COVID-19 environment. Is there any amount of antibacterial soap that a septic can tolerate, or should we sing “Happy Birthday” three times with good old bar soap?—Kevin Lengyell, Little Redstone Lake, Ont. 

Well, there’s good news and there’s…actually, there is no bad news. It’s all good news! You can safely wash your hands with any kind of soap. Studies haven’t found added health benefits from soaps containing antibacterial ingredients when compared to plain soap, says the CDC. Both are equally effective. More important is washing your hands thoroughly and correctly for at least 20 seconds. (But no need to sing Happy B-day a third time. Unless you just really like the song.)

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“It’s also worth noting that while manufacturers happily add an ‘antibacterial’ label to things, the reality is that pretty much any soap has some antibacterial properties,” says David Evans, a professor in the department of medical microbiology and immunology at the University of Alberta. “But if you’re worried about the soap’s impact on the septic system, switch to something without the label. You’ll still be fine. And you’ll probably save some money.”

You’re correct that antibacterial products aren’t great for a septic tank; they can kill the “good” bacteria in there

“How much negative impact it can have is hard to determine,” says Bill Goodale, the sewage system inspector for the Township of Tiny, Ont. “There are a lot of different variables from one cottage to another.” But if you switch to regular soap, “and you’re doing everything else right with the system, then the bacterial action should return to normal levels.”

See? Good news!

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This article was originally published in the August/September 2021 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

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