Wash your hands with soap is a statement that is ubiquitous amidst the COVID-19 outbreak. It is now becoming a staple habit amongst people all over the world as the crisis worsens. Some of them have even gone to the extent of crisis shopping and stocking up on essential supplies and honestly anything else that they can find in supermarkets. At the centre of it all though, is this mystical product called soap.
This precaution is literally propagated by everyone because it does have the science to back it up. Washing hands with soap can effectively protect individuals from getting infected by viruses. It is a tried and tested method that has actually been around for a long time. According to LiveScience, the invention of soap dates back to the Egyptian civilisation where it was used for hygiene purposes as well as treating skin infections.
It is well known that respiratory viruses such as Influenza and COVID-19 tend to spread through droplets. When an individual is sick and they sneeze or cough, tiny droplets of moisture are expelled through the mouth and nose. One way of contracting the illness is when these droplets land on someone else’s mouth or nose. Sometimes these droplets can fall on desks or chairs or any object and can remain there for a long time, so when an individual comes into contact with these objects they can get infected too.
In the US, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has acknowledged that the best way to keep the hands clean is to wash them with soap and to only opt for hand sanitiser when soap is unavailable. They also recommend using hand sanitiser with 60% alcohol. Meanwhile in Malaysia, the health ministry has religiously asked the people to wash hands with, greet people without shaking hands and take all precautions necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
The structure of soap & how it is effective
According to Vox which quoted Palli Thordarson, a chemistry professor, at the Unversity of New South Wales, Sydney, soaps are amphiphiles. They have a unique quality where they are both hydrophilic (water-loving) and lipophilic (fat-loving). When oil is added to water, it does not mix and this is because water repels oil. However, if soap is added to this mixture, the oil will disintegrate into smaller droplets and scatter across the mixture. This is because the soap tears it up due to its two sides, water-loving and fat-loving.
Viruses either have RNA or DNA (genetic information), and a protein coat to hold it in place, some of them tend to have fat or protein envelopes too. This structure is what makes soap extremely efficient in killing the virus.
It is essentially, the duality element of soap that helps to destroy viruses. When soap does come into contact with it, it pulls the virus apart because of its hydrophilic and lipophilic ends. It acts the same way it did with the oil and dissolves the fat membrane of the virus. It disrupts it and gets attracted to the fat and protein layer, only to pull it apart and render the virus incapable.
“You pull the virus apart, you make it soluble in water, and it disintegrates.”
Thordarson explains that the most crucial element of all of this is time. Our hands have tiny folds and crevices, so when soap is applied and lathered, one needs to give it at least 20 seconds for the soap to function in killing off viruses.
“You do need a bit of time for all the soap to interact back and forth with the virus particle.”
He explained that all you need is normal soap, nothing fancy and that the antibacterial products are basically just expensive versions of soap. Alcohol wipes are good in situations where soap is not practical or available.
For a visual explanation about the effectiveness of soap against COVID-19, check out this video from Cheddar: