Soap is still the best preventative tool we have against the coronavirus
March 16, 2020
Your hands are a gateway to the rest of your body
Right now, there’s nothing that can cure the coronavirus and no vaccine to prevent it. Social distancing will slow its spread, but the most effective preventative tool is (still) at our disposal: good, ol’ basic soap.
Our hands are a gateway to our bodies. We’re constantly touching surfaces, doors, other people’s hands and inevitably our own faces…every two to five minutes. And viruses can stick like glue to your hands.
As unsexy as it might be, washing your hands is the best way to get ahead of this global pandemic. Here’s why.
How Soap Works
Humans have been using soap for centuries, since the Babylonians found that animal fat, ashes and water could clean their clothing. The formula hasn’t changed much: soap contains fat or oil, an alkali or basic salt, and water.
Soap molecules have a love/hate relationship with water. One end of the molecule is water-loving, or hydrophilic. The other end of the molecule is oil-loving or hydrophobic.
This gives soap an advantage when cleaning greasy items, like hands. The oil-loving end of the soap molecule attaches to other oily molecules and the water-loving end helps wash those oily molecules away.
Water alone can’t fully clean oily objects. Anyone who has tried to wash butter off their hands without soap can attest to this. It takes the oil-binding end of the soap molecule to interface with the grease, break it up, and wash it away.
Why the Coronavirus is destroyed by soap
Coronaviruses are like oily molecules: they’re bits of genetic information surrounded by an envelope of fats and proteins. When soap encounters a virus, the fat-loving end of the soap molecule buries into the virus' layer of fat and protein, breaking it apart. Then water flushes away the broken pieces of viruses.
It’s simple, but highly effective. However, if you don’t give soap enough time (20 seconds or more) to rub into your skin and interact with the virus molecule, then that chemical magic won’t work.
What about sanitizers and antibacterial soap?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hand sanitizers with more than 60 percent alcohol will also destroy viruses. But you need to completely soak your hands with it, and wet or sweaty hands can make sanitizers less effective. Sanitizers aren’t good at cutting grease like soap, and viruses can hitch a ride on grease.
Antibacterial soap is even less necessary, since it targets bacteria and not viruses, and there’s not a lot of evidence showing its advantages over regular soap. Which is why, in 2016, the Food and Drug Administration banned its marketing to the public. Simple normal soap will do the job.