Danger in the Soap Dispenser

Bacteria and mold may be lurking where workers and clients least expect it

Danger in the Soap Dispenser

A growing body of scientific evidence supports the idea that refillable bulk soap dispensers may compromise hand hygiene and negatively affect your efforts to create a clean and healthy building environment.

Just as facility managers weathered the transition from bar soap to refillable dispensers years ago, today many are in the process of converting from refillable bulk soap dispensers to sealed dispensing systems. When this transition is complete, facility managers will eliminate an unnecessary health risk while experiencing the many benefits that come with sealed dispensing systems.

What Science Reveals

Studies show that hand washers using soap from refillable bulk dispensers cannot be assured of the integrity of the product. Scientists have learned that refillable bulk soap dispensers can be contaminated easily by disease-causing bacteria.

The disturbing truth is we cannot ensure hand washers are reducing the amount of germs on their hands if they are using soap from refillable bulk soap dispensers. In fact, studies show people may leave restrooms with more germs on their hands than before washing.

A study done in collaboration with scientist John Yablonski of Bio-Control Consultants tracked the refillable bulk soap dispensers at a school in New Jersey. The study concluded that 100 percent of the newly-installed refillable bulk soap dispensers progressed from clean to grossly contaminated during normal use in a matter of months.

Other studies have shown that in many buildings, the rate of contamination of bulk soap dispensers can be as high as 90 percent. A study published in the  Journal of Environmental Health shows one in four refillable bulk soap dispensers are contaminated with unsafe levels of bacteria and also reports zero contamination found in sealed dispensing systems.A follow-up study published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology reports washing with soap from refillable bulk dispensers can leave hands with 25 times more bacteria after washing and can easily spread to other surfaces.2

A study published in Biofouling reveals that once the dispensers are contaminated bacterial “biofilm” returns to the inside of them even after rare cleanings. It concluded that not even bleach is powerful enough to clean the contamination away permanently.3

Growing Awareness

The public is beginning to recognize the risks as news media reports on the topic of bulk soap contamination increase. For facility owners and managers, public trust is a major consideration. A Harris Interactive survey sponsored by Cintas showed 94 percent of people will avoid a business if they have encountered dirty restrooms.

So what can facility maintenance managers do to make their restrooms cleaner and regain public confidence? They can protect the health of hand washers by using sealed soap dispensing systems.

Once the commitment has been made to use sealed dispensing systems, a wide selection is readily available. Sealed system innovations feature clean and modern-looking designs that encourage use.

Dispensing Advice

Rick Henry, product management director for GOJO dispensing systems, advises facilities maintenance and janitorial managers to be proactive in encouraging people to practice good hand hygiene.

“Make soap use appealing and engaging. If a dispenser looks good and is clean, that affects its rate of use,” he says. 

Henry recommends choosing a design that incorporates aesthetics and a sight window that actually shows the product being dispensed. Some sealed dispensing systems offer touch-free performance and dispense the appropriate amount of product for an effective hand wash while reducing waste. 

“Dispensers really do affect the image of your facility, and there’s no better way to do that than with touch-free technology.” Henry says. “It encourages people to use the soap and delivers just the right amount.”

Henry also recommends choosing dispensers that are easy to maintain. Some dispenser companies provide a lifetime guarantee and replacement batteries for their dispensers.

“Fixing broken soap dispensers is the last thing the custodial staff should be doing,” Henry says “Reliability is key.”

Camp Pendleton

Facilities management company Job Options replaced refillable bulk soap dispensers at U.S. Marine Base Camp Pendleton with touch-free systems that use green certified soaps in sealed refills that lock out germs. Job Options Facilities Division Manager Margaret-Ann Pena says the dispensers, soaps, and hand sanitizers were specified in the large-scale conversion at Camp Pendleton to carry out the executive order that requires federal agencies to purchase environmentally preferred products and services.

“When do you ever clean a bulk dispenser? Never,” she says. “We just keep pouring new soap in. The perception is, ‘It’s soap. It’s got to be clean.’ But if you look closely, you can sometimes see mold growing in the reservoirs.”

Pena notes that bacteria can get in the older, pour-style bulk soap dispensers.

“It was extremely important that we eliminate this risk, and that’s why we use the sanitary sealed snap-in refill cartridges,” she says.

Not only has the switch benefited sanitation, it also benefited the camp’s finances and the maintenance department’s routine. 

“We have actually reduced our costs since switching. The thicker foam soap and touch-free dispensers provide the right amount for effective hand washing,” Pena says. “The new system has also really simplified our maintenance routine. It’s much easier to manage inventory, and the refills are easier to store, transport, and service. The Lifetime Performance Guarantee, which includes replacement batteries, is another cost and convenience advantage.”

Military and civilian personnel have responded very favorably.

“Our customer—Camp Pendleton—is happy that we created a cleaner, healthier atmosphere in the base’s restrooms,” Pena says.

It makes sense on many fronts to transition from refillable to sealed systems, for people and for the planet. Today’s sealed cartridges are designed to be recycled, delivering a combination of social and environmental sustainability benefits.

Facilities managers who eliminate the risks associated with contaminated refillable bulk soap dispensers and transition to sealed systems give hand washers what they expect—clean hands.


  1. Chattman M, Maxwell S, Gerba C. 2011. Occurrence of heterotrophic and coliform bacteria in liquid hand soaps from bull refillable dispensers in public facilities. J Environ Health. 73(7): 26-29.
  2. Zapka C, Campbell E., Maxwell S, Gerba C, Dolan M, Arbogast J, Macinga D. 2011. Bacterial hand contamination and transfer after use of contaminated bulk-soap-refillable dispensers. Appl Environ Microbiol. 77(9): 2898-2904.
  3. Lorenz L, Ramsay B, Goeres D, Fields M., Zapka C., Macinga D. 2012. Evaluation and remediation of bulk soap dispensers for biofilm. Biofouling., 28(1): 99-109.


Posted On April 23, 2018
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