With cold and flu season upon us, ads for automatic soap and sanitizer dispensers make these gadgets look like the must-have solution for cutting down on mess and promoting frequent hand-washing – but are they worth buying? Their big selling point is that since they’re touch-free, they don’t spread germs among users. An infrared sensor “sees” a user’s hand and dispenses a measured amount of liquid. While ads usually focus on liquid soaps and sanitizers for hands, automatic soap dispensers can also be used to dispense moisturizer, shampoo, conditioner or dish detergent.
While we found mixed reviews for most automatic soap dispensers, they have an undeniable appeal; since you don't have to use one (presumably dirty) hand to push the pump, you don't transfer germs to the dispenser. And because kids can find them fun to use, they encourage hand washing in general. But in our quick review of the options, countertop soap dispensers in general don't work as well as advertised.
Countertop automatic soap dispensers
Commercial-level automatic dispensers use their own proprietary refill cartridges, but most home models let you use the liquid of your choice. We found the most positive reviews for the Liquid Motion Touchless Soap Dispenser (*Est. $20), which also comes with a drip tray; you can mount it on the wall or set it on a countertop. A four-month test of this model at ABC15 (Phoenix, AZ) is favorable, and most owner-written reviews at Amazon.com and Fingerhut.com are also favorable – though some owners report quality-control issues.
The Liquid Motion Touchless Soap Dispenser (*Est. $20) is a countertop dispenser, and it has some features we didn’t see on other models. A touch-sensitive LED screen is nicely positioned and not only shows the battery and reservoir levels, but lets you adjust the amount of liquid dispensed at a time. A rinse cycle makes for easy cleaning and lets you switch liquids without having to pump out the residue by hand.
The sensor on the Liquid Motion dispenser angles up a bit, and though we didn’t find any reports of accidental triggering, we did find reports of this on other brands of soap dispensers – which can lead to a mess of unwanted soap. It seems that too bright a light, or even the shadow of someone walking in front of a sensor, can trigger some sensors so they dispense unwanted liquid. There are just four reviews for the Liquid Motion dispenser at Amazon.com; all four like it but one received a lemon that didn't work out of the box.
Unwanted liquid can also be dispensed if soap or water gets into an automatic soap dispenser’s battery compartment -- located at the base of all the models we checked out. The battery compartments have seals that are supposedly waterproof, but overfilling the dispenser can get the batteries wet – and some owners report that the seals wear over time. This is one of the main complaints among owners at Amazon.com reviewing the elegant, full-featured 14-oz. Simplehuman Sensor Pump (*Est. $40). Only about half of the 125 or so owners reviewing this dispenser at Amazon.com are happy with it -- though some are very happy indeed.
The iTouchless Automatic Soap Dispenser (*Est. $50) earns an even lower average rating at Amazon.com. One owner reports coming home to find that it had dispensed all the soap at once, without anyone near it. At Target.com, the same problem is reported with Michael Graves Automatic Soap Dispenser (*Est. $20). Neither this model nor the heavily advertised Soap Magic (*Est. $20) allow users to adjust the amount of liquid dispensed at a time. ABC15 also tried out the Soap Magic dispenser for a week, but tester Daphne Munro had big issues with the dispenser's sensor: "I had to keep moving my hand around in order for the soap to come out. And then once it did come out, it was barely enough to soap up my hands."
Big wall dispensers
Wall dispensers are convenient if you have space for them, and the big commercial models sold in office supply stores usually carry longer warranties and get better reviews than most models designed for home use. The 40-oz. GOJO TFX Touch Free Foam Hand Soap Dispenser (*Est. $30) dispenses about 1,500 measures of foam soap per refill (*Est. $33) and uses C-batteries for long battery life. Purell (owned by the same company) makes a similar wall dispenser for hand sanitizer (*Est. $25 plus $25 sanitizer cartridge).
Automatic soap dispensers: Our opinion
Aside from going with a commercial model, the only dispenser we'd consider buying would be the Liquid Motion Soap Dispenser. In the one professional test and handful of user reviews we found, there were no major complaints. Whether or not an automatic soap dispenser is worth buying at all, of course, is up to you. But if the "fun" factor encourages kids (or adults) to wash their hands more often, we're all for it.