Are you wondering …

How soap and water can help to fight the Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic?

Why is everyone telling you to wash your hands like you were in elementary school again?

How a common, everyday household item become the most significant preventative in our global battle against the Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic?

All of the health organizations and advisory boards are talking about handwashing.
Our organization continues to send us reminders about handwashing. So, does handwashing
with soap and water really work? Yes, it does! And here’s how …

Soap’s Amazing Structure

The answer lies in the structure of soap. Soaps are made by hydrolyzing fats and oils with a strong hydroxide base through a chemical reaction called saponification. Chemically, the soap molecule has two ends … a hydrophilic head and a hydrophobic tail. The head end binds with water while the tail end prefers to link up with oils and grease. These soap molecules, in contact with water, arrange themselves into tiny clusters called micelles, with heads pointing outward and tails tucked inside. The lipophilic tails secure grease molecules in the center while the hydrophilic heads allow the micelle to be suspended in water. In order to understand the exact mechanism, we need to also understand the structure of membranes of some viruses and bacteria.

Lipid Membranes

Pathogens like the Coronavirus (Covid-19) are encased in a lipid envelope. Other viruses of similar structure are the HIV, Hepatitis B and C viruses, Herpes, Zika, dengue, and numerous bacteria. The Coronavirus (Covid-19) has a membrane of oily lipid molecules, which is studded with proteins that help the virus infect our cells. These membranes are also studded with proteins that helps the virus to enter the cells and perform vital tasks to keep it alive.

How Does it Work?

Soap can break this lipid layer apart, kill the virus or render the virus non-infectious.

Two Mechanisms

Washing your hands with soap is to surround the virus with soap molecules. When the soap molecule comes in contact with water and any microorganisms present in your hands, the hydrophobic tails of soap molecules attempts to shun the water molecule, in turn wedging themselves into the lipid envelopes of the microbes and viruses, busting them apart. The debris of destroyed virus are trapped in the soap molecule, micelles which then wash away in the water. Micelles can also form around particles of dirt and fragments of viruses and bacteria, suspending them in floating cages. When you rinse your hands, all the microorganisms that have been damaged, trapped and killed by soap molecules are washed away. Washing your hands with soap and water also removes things from your hands physically. Soap makes the skin slippery so with enough rubbing, we can remove germs from our hands and rinse them away.

What About Hand Sanitizers?

Hand sanitizers provide a convenient and effective way to clean your hands but are not as reliable as soap. The key ingredient in most sanitizers is alcohol. (Hand sanitizers must be at least 60 percent alcohol!). These alcohols destroy disease-causing agents, or pathogens, by similar mechanism, destabilizing their lipid membranes, breaking apart proteins and splitting cells into pieces. Why are the hand sanitizers not as effective as soap and water? The reason is that not all viruses and bacteria are susceptible to alcohol and it also lacks the property of washing away by soap and water. Hand sanitizer with proper alcohol concentration, however, is a good backup when soap and water are not available and practical.

Is Water Temperature Important?

Studies have shown that water temperature doesn’t matter to effectiveness of hand washing. Hotter water does cut through grease and oil faster, so they may feel cleaner; but washing with cooler water is not only as effective, it’s also more energy efficient.

What Kind of Soap is Best?

Bar Soap

Studies have found that bacteria can stay on bar soap that stays wet, that’s a small problem because the bacteria on the bar doesn’t seem to transfer to the next person. If bar soap is wet, it is recommended that you rinse it off under water for a while and continue. Store bar soap properly so that it dries between uses.

Liquid Versus Foaming Soap

There is not much difference in the effectiveness between these kinds of soap. However, the difference lies in the use. Because of the pre-formed foam people tend to wash their hands for a shorter duration and it also washes off more quickly than gel soap.

There is no difference in effectiveness between a regular soap and antibacterial soap, and one pump of foam soap was just as effective as four pumps.

What If There is No Soap?

Rubbing your hands together under the free flow of water does do some good. A 2011 study found that washing with water alone reduced the presence of E coli bacteria to 23%, compared to 44% of no washing at all.

How Should You Dry Your Hands?Most studies suggest that paper towels are superior to electric air driers as they can not only dry hands efficiently, but remove bacteria effectively, and cause less contamination in the washroom. Dry hands are also less likely to catch and spread contamination than wet hands. It is important to remember that our faces contain multiple pathways for infectious agents to easily enter the body, and our hands can be contaminated. Studies have shown that an average person touches their face 16 to 23 times per hour.

Our organizations continue to remind us to wash our hands. Keeping our hands clean is the critical public health practice that we can take to avoid getting sick, spreading the germ to others and significantly slow the rate of this pandemic. There is no better way than washing our hands properly with soap and water.

Remember your safety and the safety of people around you, is in your hands!

Roshan Khatri
Medical Director
Headwaters Relief Organization