For months now, we have been advised to wash our hands to help prevent the spread of COViD-19. But we’ve always heard that we should wash our hands, so this advice doesn’t sound like much. If all the money in the world cannot cure the disease, so how can we be expected to believe that grandma’s old-fashioned bar of soap helps?
Well, it does. Soap kills. If the virus is on your skin, the hands-down, bar-none most effective way to kill it is with soap. Not fancy soap-like washing products or perfumed shower gels. Soap. Just plain soap. And this is why:
A virus generally has an outer shell, like a microscopic geodesic dome that is studded with spikes. Think Pinhead in Hellraiser. These spikes help it adhere to specific cell surfaces such as your skin. The spikes and the outer shell are composed of lipids, an organic compound that includes fats, oils, hormones, and so on. Remember them. They’ll be important in a minute.
After a sneeze has deposited droplets from the airways onto surrounding surfaces, the droplets will evaporate, but the virus will survive. Some time later, a person comes by and innocently trails their fingers over the surface. The proteins and fatty acids in their skin interact with the virus and the virus sticks gloms onto the skin.
Enter soap. Soap contains substances that are structurally very similar to the lipids in the virus. The soap molecules compete with the lipids in the virus membrane and loosen its hold on the skin. Just as importantly, the soap dissolves the bonds between the lipids, proteins and RNA that hold the virus together and kill it.
Hand sanitizers are fine when there’s no soap, but they aren’t as effective at covering the entire surface of your hands. So use soap. Often.