How your simple soap bar can obliterate coronavirus and keep you safe

The World Health Organisation has labeled the outbreak of the novel coronavirus; COVID 19, a pandemic. COVID 19 is spread by coming into close contact with someone who has the virus and is coughing or sneezing or by touching surfaces that someone who has the virus has coughed or sneezed on. One of the most vital steps to prevent infecting and transmitting coronavirus is hand hygiene. If you’re struggling to find hand sanitizer, don’t worry, that humble bar of soap sitting in your bathroom is actually an extremely effective virus killing machine and will help keep you as safe as hand sanitizer! 

What is soap?

Soap comes in various packages, price points and scents, but all soap is effective at obliterating the coronavirus and you don’t need to splash out on expensive antibacterial soap which according to the FDA has not been proven to be effective. Chemically speaking, soap is a salt composed of an alkalimetal, such as sodium or potassium, and a mixture of “fatty” carboxylic acids.

How does soap kill coronavirus?

The structure of COVID19 is known as an ‘enveloped virus’. This means it has a protective outer layer known as a ‘lipid bilayer’. The molecules in this layer are shaped like tadpoles with two ends which have different properties. The tail end of the molecule is hydrophobic (repelled by water). The other end of the molecule is hydrophilic (attracted to water).

Soap contains molecules called amphiphiles which also have a similar tadpole structure, which is what makes it so effective. Because the outer layer of the virus is so similar to the one making up the soap molecule, the molecules in the lipid bilayer are strongly attracted to soap molecules as they are to each other. 

This disrupts the shell around the virus, killing and obliterating the virus and washing it down the drain. 

Remember, to effectively kill the virus you must wash your hands thoroughly, for at least twenty seconds (sing happy birthday twice) using soap and water. 

Is it better to use hand sanitiser or soap and water?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the UK’s Health & Safety Executive both recommend using soap and water as the most effective method for hand cleaning.

Hand sanitiser is useful to use only when you do not have access to soap and water. The alcohol content in hand sanitiser must be at least 60% in order for it to be effective. Although hand sanitiser is beneficial when soap and water are not available, it does strip the skin of its natural oils (which in itself is a defence mechanism) and it can lead to a flare-up in irritated hands, eczema and dermatitis. 

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Originally published March 22 2020, updated March 27 2020

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