Good Bacteria, Bad Bacteria: How to Wash Your Hands and Be Gentle on the Earth

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When you walk into Bath and Body Works, what’s the first thing you notice? For me, after my nostrils have recovered from the onslaught of flowery fragrances, I’m bombarded with this word: antibacterial.

In our germ phobic society, cleaning products score big when they advertise their dominion over bacteria. Except, of course, until you know better.

I’m strongly opposed to the war on “germs,” particularly the industry’s greatest weapon: triclosan. You, too, will be armed and dangerous against bacterial resistance by the time you reach the comments section.

Photo by KatieW

How Soap Works

In the interest of full disclosure, I need to tell you I’m a science geek. Please don’t hold that against me. I often tell my children that washing your hands is a team sport:  water, soap, and friction all play a role.

  1. Water has two unique properties: cohesion and adhesionCohesion, also called surface tension, means water sticks to itself.  Imagine a water droplet that doesn’t fall apart.  Adhesion means it sticks to other things.  Think of that droplet balancing just so on your fingertip.  Water naturally adheres to the dirt and germs on your hands and washes them away.
  2. Soap exploits both of water’s properties, enhancing its cleaning power. Most soap contains “surfactants“, a short word for “surface active agents which break the cohesion of water molecules and reduce the surface tension of water.  Soap becomes the connection between the bewildered water molecules and the oil on your hands, increasing the adhesive power. Now the water is more effective– the water, not the soap! – and can wash away not only standard issue dirt and germs but also oil and grease.
  3. Friction is a key element. Once soap and water have done their job, the hand-washer just needs to scrub to dislodge the particles of gunk from their hands and send everything on its merry way down the drain, carried by the adhesion of water and the surfactant of soap.

The bottom line? Washing with water and rubbing well are the most important players on the clean team. Soap is just a great assistant coach. Your real goal in washing your hands is to get the germs and dirt off your hands and down the drain.

What is Triclosan?

Nicole recently taught us to read ingredients and check the Skin Deep cosmetic safety database for safer personal care products.  What about the simple act of washing our hands – and our children’s hands?  You can start by memorizing this word:  Triclosan.

Triclosan is the bacteria-killing chemical added to antibacterial soaps (triclocarbon for bar soaps).  It causes problems because it won’t only kill the bad bacteria, but also any of the trillions of good bacteria inside your body.  Even worse, it works not by pure force, but by coaxing bacteria not to reproduce.

Why is Triclosan Dangerous?

  • It contributes to bacterial resistance, because bacteria who are naturally resistant to the chemical (just like some people don’t get certain diseases even though they’re exposed to them) survive, then reproduce, creating a bacterial population that looks like the dreaded “super bugs” on which antibiotics and antibacterial soaps won’t have any effect. See more on how antibiotic resistance works from a real scientist.
  • It is a probable hormone disruptor .
  • It stays on hands up to four hours after washing.
  • It is not completely removed by wastewater treatment processes, so it ends up in both our lakes and drinking water.  As a result, it is killing aquatic life and has been found in human breastmilk.  It’s classified as a pesticide.
  • Our grandmothers knew to let their little boys (girls too!) play in the dirt.  Exposure to bacteria is good for you and helps your children’s systems build up fortifications against the really bad germs.

Remember this: We don’t need to kill our bacteria, but simply move them out of our houses.

Photo by dijitalella

What Can I Do About It?

  1. Read labels.

    Triclosan is almost always listed as an “active ingredient.” You’ll also find it in some sneaky places, like antiperspirant and toothpaste. Seek out the triclosan-free alternatives.

  2. Just use soap.

    Regular hand soap is becoming harder to find, but it’s still mainstream, as is plain old dish soap. Go totally green and use castile soap and water in a foaming soap dispenser for hand-washing. A few tablespoons of soap will do it.

  3. Wash hands well and often.

    Teach your kids to sing “Happy Birthday” or the ABCs twice through while scrubbing firmly under running water…with some soap.

  4. Avoid products with microban too.

    Rubber ducks, cutting boards, and steering wheels may all be casualties in the germ wars. Microban, a brand-name version of triclosan, makes solid items antibacterial. Just don’t buy them.

What Works Best: Antibacterial or Plain Old Soap?

You decide:

  • AMA (American Medical Association) recommended no antibacterial soap for household use back in 2002!
  • FDA (Food and Drug Administration) is conducting research on the topic.
  • CDC (Center for Disease Control) recommends plain soap and water for handwashing.
  • EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) also recommends simple soap and “good old-fashioned scrubbing”.
  • Many of the diseases we’re worried about when we scrub our hands are viral, and triclosan doesn’t touch them anyway.
  • Triclosan needs two full minutes to work.  Who washes their hands that long?

With all those letters of the alphabet weighing in on the topic, why haven’t you heard about the AMA’s and CDC’s recommendations on ABC, CBS, or CNN?  It’s not good marketing.  Plain old soap doesn’t have selling pizzazz.

I’ll be talking triclosan again in a few weeks at Kitchen Stewardship when I share the results of an experiment I did on antibacterial soap in college and what this photo contains:

Photo by Katie Kimball

If you’re interested in more and can’t wait, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) article on triclosan is the most comprehensive source, including recommendations to the EPA for banning triclosan.

I’m participating in Kitchen Stewardship’s Spring Cleaning Carnival, Get the Antibacterials Out.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Are you convinced? What are you going to have to commit to in order to get rid of triclosan in your house? What are your concerns?

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About Katie Kimball

An at-home mom who is passionate about food, her two kids, the good green Earth and her faith, Katie Kimball blogs about all that and more at Kitchen Stewardship.

Comments

  1. I’m totally on board with this idea, but I have a question. What is a good product to use when you don’t have running water available? Let’s just say you had to change a poopy diaper on the seat of your car. Of course, that’s totally hypothetical. Ahem.
    .-= Emily @The Pilot’s Wife’s last blog: Project Life {February 21-27} AND a Photoshop Tutorial =-.

    • Emily,
      Excellent question. Because of the friction-getting-germs-off-your-hands thing, the way our parents probably did it is the best choice: wet wipes, maybe homemade with a smidge of tea tree oil for anti-bacterial properties if you want.

      That being said, I personally do use alcohol-based hand sanitizer. There’s a key difference in how alcohol works on bacteria and how triclosan works. Imagine taking a flyswatter to a pesky mosquito (problem solved) as opposed to giving the mosquito a drug that will not allow it to reproduce (possible problems abound). Check the ingredients on your sanitizers – some, like Bath and Body Works brand, still contain triclosan anyway, way down at the bottom of the list. You can see my thoughts on hand sanitizer and its place in the home.

      I love Cleanwell’s tea tree oil based sanitizer as well, and they finally came out with a foaming version that kids can do by themselves. I’ll be giving some away in three weeks at Kitchen Stewardship, if you’ve never gotten to try it!
      Thanks, Emily, for adding to the information in this post!
      :) Katie
      .-= Katie @ Kitchen Stewardship’s last blog: I’m Talkin’ Antibacterial Soap at Simple Organic Today =-.

  2. Very informative article! I’m convinced. I’ve been avoiding antibacterial soaps (and products) for two years now. However, my reasons were a little less scientific; I didn’t even know it was Triclosan until today! Frankly, I don’t like the smell of antibacterial products. I figured if something smells like a chem lab, then why would it belong in my house? I also don’t want to contribute to our problem of developing “super” germs, when I know that regular soap and water clean just as well.

  3. We stopped using antibacterial soaps ourselves when we moved into the house we live in now. Evidently, they wreak havoc on a septic system and since that’s what we have, that was our motivating factor. We are glad to have the chemical out of our lives however. We’re trying daily to rid our life of all the “extra’s” that seem to be in everything these days.

  4. Great post! I’ve known for quite awhile that that antibacterial soap was bad. However, I cannot seem to convince DH that it’s okay to go with a non-antibacterial soap. We make our own cat food so about once a month we’re cutting up massive amounts of chicken or other raw meat. He’s a germaphobe and seems convinced that regular soap will not get our hands clean enough and we’ll get sick. Same goes for dish soap; though lately I’ve been getting a non-antibacterial one since he thinks all dish soap is anti-bacterial. How can I convince him that if we get regular soap for our hands that he won’t die of salmonella poisoning? Are there any articles any of you know of to help prove my point?
    .-= Jen’s last blog: Dreaming in the Garden =-.

    • Jen,
      It’s such a hard struggle to get everyone in the family on board sometimes, but at least you and your husband are talking about the issue. If he’s a science guy, definitely check out those links from the CDC, EPA, etc. above as well as the EWG article. If your husband still thinks he needs “the big guns” for raw meat, at least switch to a non-discriminatory killer like bleach – but don’t stop reading there!

      I don’t recommend bleach and don’t use it in my home, but I used to for raw chicken. Now I use a combo of vinegar and hydrogen peroxide, in separate bottles. The backup information on details on that is here. Those two harmless cleaners should kill the salmonella; sources at the post.

      I hope that helps!!
      :) Katie
      .-= Katie @ Kitchen Stewardship’s last blog: I’m Talkin’ Antibacterial Soap at Simple Organic Today =-.

      • Long ago when antibacterial soap didn’t exist, handling raw chicken didn’t kill us. We used soap and water for a good scrubbing. We were and are careful about what we touch until the clean-up is done. Most of us trusted that a soap and water cleaning of the counter and utensils was sufficient…and it must have been! It’s only been in more recent history that bleach and other cleaning agents became more common.

        I put any knife used on meat in the sink, others are put on the counter next to the sink. It eliminates cross-contamination and lets me know which knife NOT to rinse and use again.

      • Thanks! I’ll send him the links for those sites. We too use the hydrogen peroxide and vinegar method for our kitchen counters. Bleach is so harsh and smells horrible. Plus, we have kittens and they love to lick everything!
        .-= Jen’s last blog: Dreaming in the Garden =-.

  5. For a while now, I’ve been using castile soap or handmade soaps that I buy on Etsy. I don’t use chemical cleaners or anything “antibacterial” in my home. I have seen the word “Microban” on objects in public restrooms (like the one where I work) and often wondered what that means. I had no idea that microban is also triclosan. It’s very difficult to avoid antibacterial products when outside my own home, it seems like they are everywhere now!
    .-= Jeanne’s last blog: Olive Oil Brownies =-.

  6. I am also wondering about cleaning after raw meat. I don’t often use meat, and I always try to minimize handling while raw (cooking it before cutting it, for example) but after I do anything with it, I take an antibacterial wipe and go over the counter, garbage can door, sink handle, and anywhere else I’ve touched or the juice might have gotten. This is the only place I ever use antibacterial-anything. Is that okay? If not, does soap-and-water really get the bacteria off?
    .-= Nikki Moore’s last blog: Why I Stopped Using Shampoo, Why I Started Again, and What I’ve Learned Along The Way =-.

  7. Great article! You explained this so well. I’m getting rid of the hand sanitizers today. My family is so accustomed to using them-I may get some resistance. I’ve been slowly changing over to more healthy products in my home. Are there any alternatives?

    I know that when I meet someone and shake hands with them only to find out later that they are coughing and sick, it’s much more discreet to pull out the hand sanitizer than to find a restroom. And sometimes public restrooms are so dirty that it seems like I would be better off not washing my hands at all.
    .-= Jana @ Weekend Vintage’s last blog: Mens Golf Shirt-Advance 5062 =-.

    • Jana,
      I love Cleanwell’s sanitizer, but until recently it was tricky for little kids to squirt the push-top bottles. They just came out with a foaming version; I haven’t tried it yet, but they say it will be great for kids and easy to use! It’s alcohol and triclosan free.
      :) Katie

  8. Katie, this post was so super informative! Thank you so much! We haven’t used antibacterial soap in awhile here at our house, but one time when we kept passing around a stomach bug (literally, we each had it twice, within about a month’s time) the nurse advised us to use some for awhile. The bug went away finally, so now I have been keeping it around to use when we are fighting sickness. But now I will research other things – even alcohol-based things would probably work just as well without the triclosan, huh?

  9. Kristen says:

    Excellent post. Luckily, I found out about antibacterial soaps during my first pregnancy and got rid of everything. We stick to regular soap and water – and alcohol based sanitizers. Thanks for sharing!

  10. Love this! We don’t use antibacterial soaps, but I’ve never had all of the details I needed to explain why. Thanks for presenting it so clearly!
    .-= Mandi @ Organizing Your Way ‘s last blog: Creative Organizing for Your Bathroom =-.

  11. I am SO glad you posted about this! It’s so important, but people often look at you funny when you say you don’t use antibacterial soap. I’m so afraid of it that when I’m at other people’s houses who have it, I just do a good scrub with running water, sometimes faking a pump from the soap dispenser if anyone’s looking:) I’d rather take my chances with normal germs.
    Studies have shown that kids in poorer countries that live closer to their animals and/or in dirt floor houses have way fewer allergies and colds than kids that live in developed countries in freakishly sterile environments. I am all about letting my little one play in the dirt (and even put it in his mouth!) to build up his immunity that way.
    Thanks for such a great post!

    • Amy! LOL! I can picture you faking the pump; that’s hilarious. Amen to allowing some germs in your house. I keep forgetting to wash my toddler’s hands before a snack after library time (perhaps because she’s screaming for food?), and a minute into her eating I think, “Uh oh. Will she get a cold?” We’ve been so healthy this winter and last, and it’s not because of clean hands! (I blame our nutrition, but that’s another post entirely.) :) Katie
      .-= Katie @ Kitchen Stewardship’s last blog: I’m Talkin’ Antibacterial Soap at Simple Organic Today =-.

      • Jeannie says:

        So, um, I rarely wash my 22 month old daughters hands. I clean them off when they LOOK dirty. And she gets a bath about once a week. And she plays with the cat while eating. And when food drops to the not so often washed floor, she picks it up and eats it anyways. And she rides in shopping carts without the fabric cover thing over it. And we have dogs and we play outside in the trees and dirt. And you know what? She hasn’t had a single illness all year. Not one.

        It’s not that I’m dirty or lazy or anything, but my husband and I are both scientists (PhD and Masters) and simply know the truth – germs in limited form are OK. We try to avoid other kids who are sick, but we have play group a lot and no, I do not clean the toys before and after they come (I have a friend who does). So it’s not her lack of exposure to germs that is keeping her healthy.

        I DO clean the house with the following mantra “clean enough to be healthy, dirty enough to be happy” and go from there. With her family history of allergies, this (along with breastfeeding for 17 months) is probably the best thing that I am currently doing for her. We also don’t do anything anti-bacterial and use all natural soaps and laundry stuff. We line dry our clothes and we, well, we’re not exactly normal I guess.

        Here’s to germy and healthy and HAPPY kids!

        • Jeannie,
          Oh, my goodness, you’re cracking me up. What a great rundown on keeping your child healthy and your philosophy on germs. I’m right there with you, although I do use a shopping cart cover for a convenient place to set snacks, and I miss washing my kids’ hands because I’m lazy and forgetful! ;)
          Thanks for sharing your story!
          :) Katie
          .-= Katie @ Kitchen Stewardship’s last blog: Mary and Martha Moment: Just Food =-.

  12. I also avoid antibacterial soaps and I also make my own hand sanitizer to carry with me. I just use a small spray bottle filled with vodka and a few drops of lavender essential oil. I can use this when hand washing is not possible and I know whats in it ;)

  13. Terri – I use that same mixture, diluted a bit, to freshen up my shower. It kills bacteria and helps keep the orange mold away between scrubbings! :)
    .-= Nikki Moore’s last blog: Why I Stopped Using Shampoo, Why I Started Again, and What I’ve Learned Along The Way =-.

  14. Stephanie says:

    Totally agree with you, Katie! We only use good ol’ soap, never anything antibacterial in our home.

    This winter I wanted to be able to carry around something with me for cleaning the kids hands, to avoid the flu. But I definitely didn’t want to use hand sanitizer, for all of the above-stated reasons! Instead, I found something called Clean-Well which does not have Triclosan, but uses naturally anti-bacterial substances to do the cleaning instead. We still use that pretty minimally, but I love having a much better alternative for those times when we’re out and just aren’t able to wash our hands.

  15. Thanks for this post! Great info. I started making my own soap a few months ago which we been using for hands and in the shower. The next thing to go is the antibacterial dish soap.

  16. I’m also a fan of soap and water. Essential oils are also great antibacterial allies to have on hand. In one study of 14 different essential oils, cinnamon bark, lemongrass and thyme were the most effective against most bacteria strains. You can read the study here:

    http://jac.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/full/47/5/565
    .-= Abby @ New Urban Habitat’s last blog: Learning to prune =-.

  17. LOVE THIS, Katie. SO informative. Great, great, great education here.

    We use Dr. Bronner’s in a foaming pump for handsoap in our house. I hadn’t heard of the Cleanwell wipes . . . will have to look into those for out of the house.

    Thank you again for such an informative article, mama!
    .-= Megan@SortaCrunchy’s last blog: SortaCrunchy Q&A – Texas. More babies. Mama time. =-.

  18. Congratulations and thank you for a such a well written, well-researched and informative article. It’s so wonderful to be seeing this type of information on a general forum such as this. The more people who are made aware of these types of issues, the better off we’ll all be in the future.
    Colette
    .-= Colette’s last blog: Christmas is finally all wrapped up … =-.

  19. Awesome post! My hands were always so irritated in the winter when I used the antibacterial stuff. I like Shaklee’s hand soap – smells really nice and has no ickies in it. I like the Dr. Bronner’s idea and I love CleanWell wipes.
    .-= Becky – Clean Mama’s last blog: SPRING ZONE CLEANING – DAY 4 =-.

  20. What a great article!!! This whole concept has been on my mind for quite some time.
    An interesting story…
    Last time I was in Nicaragua, there were a few people on our team who thought the conditions of the orphanage kitchen were ‘horrible’. Against our judgement, they purchased a bunch of very scary cleaning products. The women took them to the kitchen and handed them to the cooks, feeling very proud of themselves.

    Later I asked the women in the kitchen what they thought of the ‘gifts’. The women explained that these cleaners would make the kitchen too clean. And that the children would loose their ability to fight any ‘bugs’ they encountered later in life. They appreciated the gift, but would not be using the products.

    Since then, I have avoided antibacterial as much as possible.

    Same concept, different country, different economic status.

    • Eren,
      What a powerful testimony to the knowledge of simpler societies – and how right they are! Thank you so much for sharing – Katie
      .-= Katie @ Kitchen Stewardship’s last blog: Mary and Martha Moment: Just Food =-.

      • I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic in the mid-90′s… while not using chemical cleaners is probably a good thing, simpler isn’t always better. And, there’s a lot of negative comments to this post regarding the use of bleach. I want to point out to you that the vast majority of Americans and most of the developed world use bleach on a daily basis whether they know it or not. In fact, you all consume it daily (I hope). Yup, is the chlorine in your drinking water that kills all of the critters that would otherwise make you sick. When I was living in the DR, I chloronated my own water using plain bleach and that is why I didn’t come home with any special friends. My Dominican neighbors though, they didn’t use bleach. Not because they couldn’t afford it (it was used on every batch of laundry) but because they didn’t like the taste of the water after it was treated. The men were often the ones with the biggest issues with this. The result? LOTS of intestinal parasites. Lots of dysentery. In adults, dysentery can make you really sick and sometimes cause death. In children… I had two neighbor kids both nearly die because their dads wouldn’t allow their moms to bleach their water. It’s not pretty or happy and is so frustrating because it is so easily preventable. The kids survived, that round, but who knows about the next…

        The point of all of this is back to what I previously said… clean enough to be “healthy”. So often, lack of sanitation education in developing nations results in a lack of healthy. There are two extremes to this situation – the American (and maybe European) hyper-clean extreme and the often third world un-clean extreme. (They were actually VERY tidy folks, I’m talking clean on a germ level, not a clutter level.) The trick is finding the happy medium.

  21. This is great! I truly learned something new today. I’ve kinda suspected that I should be using soaps and have made a semi-transition to that. But now, i feel like I need to do a full change. Thank you thank you thank you!
    .-= Vina’s last blog: Single-Tasking: Putting the Sacred Back in Everyday Tasks =-.

  22. Thanks so much for this post! We don’t use anti-bacterial soap either but like other said, it is nice to hear the science behind it. I have been looking around for alternatives to buying bar soap in the store to use in the shower. I want something more natural. Whenever I look around I feel like the list of ingredients people use in their homemade soaps vary so much. So my question is, are there other ingredients that are common in homemade soap that should be avoided? Of course I can’t think of any of the ingredients I have questioned in the past off of the top of my head right now. Thanks!

    • Rachel,
      As far as regular soap goes, there are plenty of controversial ingredients, like sodium laurel/laureth sulfate, parabens, and many more. Generally bar soaps are less likely to have so many chemicals in them, but not always. A perfectly safe (but not always practical) rule is to use personal products containing only ingredients you could also eat! Also the fewer ingredients, the better.

      I wish I had a good suggestion for you, but I’m using Ivory right now, just plain old bar soap. NaturOli soap nuts might have something; I love their shampoo bar.

      Great question!
      :) Katie
      .-= Katie @ Kitchen Stewardship’s last blog: Mary and Martha Moment: Just Food =-.

  23. Thanks, Katie, this was great! I’ve been anti-triclosan for a while now (I also love Cleanwell’s natural sanitizer!) but I had no idea that Microban is a name brand of triclosan nor that triclosan takes 2 full minutes of washing to work. Thanks for posting the various organizations’ standpoints on handwashing too!
    .-= Nicole aka Gidget’s last blog: Encyclopedia of Me: A =-.

  24. Thanks for the great info! It’s funny b/c when “anti-bacterial” soaps first starting becoming popular several years ago, I remember saying, “If anti-bacterial soap is new what have I been doing the last 20 years? What IS soap if not getting rid of bacteria?” It seemed more of a marketing scam if nothing else! I have a distinct memory of watching a cartoon in early elementary school teaching us how to wash our hands with hot water, etc. and seeing those cartoon germs fall down the drain WITHOUT anti-bacterial soap! :)

  25. Hello everyone! I just discovered this site and love it, and read this topic with interest because it is one near and dear to my heart. I wrote a blog post on this subject entitled “What is Soap?”
    http://soapourri.typepad.com/soapourri_natural_bath_an/2007/11/what-is-soap.html
    Because what we think is soap, like Ivory, is actually an incomplete product missing a very important ingredient that they have removed. In fact, I am contemplating a new blog post called: What do Wonder Bread, Ivory, and Margarine have in common? The answer? They are all things that us Baby Boomers grew up with and were told that they were good for us – but aren’t!

  26. VERY interesting stuff!! Great info in the comments, too!!

    I try not to buy soaps that are obviously antibacterial, but I’ll have to start paying closer attention to the labels apparently! :)

    I also checked out your link in the comments re: the 3 cleaners you use in your kitchen on your blog! Love it! Thanks!!!
    .-= Catie’s last blog: Newby Finance 101: Post 3: Financial Resources =-.

  27. I know I’m a little late. I got here through SimpleMom. Thank you for such a great post! I’m learning so much lately through all of these wonderful blogs! I too am trying to gradually switch over to natural products, especially soaps and cleaners. I recently bought several bars of Dr. Bronner’s Castille soap, as well as a bottle of the liquid version. I find that the soap is a bit irritating to my skin in the shower, around sensitive areas. Does anyone else have this problem? And can anyone tell me how to dilute the liquid stuff to make a hand soap? The info on the bottle is a little confusing.

    I’m going to check my hand sanitizers now! :)

    • Becka,
      There are tons of natural bar soaps, usually made by local artisans, that you may want to look for. One of my sponsors, Garden of St. Francis (http://gardenoffrancis.com/) has a “just plain soap” bar for only 75 cents.

      For handsoap, I do use castille soap, and I usually just squirt a few Tbs in my foaming soap dispenser and fill the rest with water. That does it! You can always add more if it doesn’t seem sudsy enough.

      :) Katie

  28. Does anyone know of another brand similar to Cleanwell? My DD and I are celiac and I just realized this sanitizer has oats and therefore not gluten-free. She’s 2.5 and puts her fingers in her mouth so I’m worried about the gluten exposure. Thanks!

  29. Rebecca says:

    Hm, I will have to check our soaps. I admit, Hubby and I buy tend to buy them solely on the basis of how good they smell! Not a good standard, I know. It is even worse, because I already knew how bad antibacterial soaps are; my mom is a doc and has hammered that into our heads for years. :P

  30. Now I understand how it works and I wash with soap. So in the end he still relies on the properties of water. Interesting material.

  31. I used any type of soap when i wash my hands..I dont think of choosing the right kind of soap as long as it can take away dirts.

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