As Covid-19 cases are rising rapidly across the world, fear has understandably gripped the public. Since the novel coronavirus – like all respiratory viruses – can be spread via our hands, one of the prime measures in combating it, mentioned by both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is to regularly wash your hands with soap or hand sanitizer.
Understandably, there has been a sudden upsurge in the sales of soaps and hand sanitizers over the last few weeks. In fact, the alarm over the novel coronavirus has caused hand sanitizers to be sold out all over the world and now they are being sold at outrageously inflated prices. People have also been stocking up and hoarding sanitizers. Such is their crazed demand that some countries have declared hand sanitizers to be essential commodities.
Using a hand sanitizer is, of course, a smart way to keep your hands clean. Since you don’t need to use any water and can carry the little bottles around with you even when you travel, it is obvious why they are so in-demand in the present climate. That being said, the value of good old soap is being underestimated in this situation.
The CDC has, as a matter of fact, recommended washing hands with soap and water as the top way to clean hands. Many experts have confirmed that all forms of soaps are more effective than hand sanitizers and will work well on the Sars-CoV-2, the coronavirus, and other viruses as well.
When you wash your hands with soap and water, you are not just wiping your hands clean. You are basically destroying the viruses and neutralizing them. Soap “is almost like a demolition team breaking down a building and taking all the bricks away,” says Palli Thordarson, a chemistry professor at the University of New South Wales.
Why soap works so well is because the virus is a self-assembled nanoparticle in which the weakest link is the lipid (fatty) bilayer. Soap dissolves the fat membrane of the virus, and it simply collapses and dies. Another key point worth understanding is that the chemical bonds holding the virus together aren’t too strong and can be disintegrated by soap.
Not just this, soap will also wash away bacteria and other viruses that may be stronger than the coronavirus. For that to happen, however, you will have to ensure that the correct method is followed while washing your hands. That is, you must take at least 20 seconds to cleanse your hands thoroughly with soap for it to be effective.
Human skin is wrinkly, and it will take some time for the soap particles to penetrate all the tiny folds of the skin to annihilate all the viruses lurking in the corners. Furthermore, the soap would require a few moments to let its chemicals perform their actions. “You do need a bit of time for all the soap to interact back and forth with the virus particle,” Thordarson says.
Read this Twitter thread by Palli Thordarson to understand why soap is such a powerful Covid-19 killer.
Hand sanitizers can destroy viruses too, of course. This is primarily because their main content is alcohol. When soap is not handy or practical, a sanitizer will be quite useful. Most hand sanitizer labels declare that their product “kills 99.99% of illness-causing germs.” That doesn’t mean, however, that the product will protect you against the novel coronavirus. One must take note here that an effective hand sanitizer should contain a high concentration of alcohol to have the same impact as soap.
Image source - Wikimedia Commons
The CDC recommends a sanitizer that has at least 60% alcohol. Beware of sanitizers or wipes that don't list the percentage of alcohol. In fact, some companies have even been found selling sanitizers having no alcohol at all.
Many popular hand sanitizer brands rely on benzalkonium chloride instead of alcohol as their main ingredient. These non-alcohol antiseptic products may not be as effective on various forms of germs. Ethyl alcohol (ethanol)-based hand sanitizers are safe, according to experts, but should typically have 60-80% ethanol. So make sure you check the label properly before purchasing a hand sanitizer.
Image source - @PalliThordarson/Twitter
Bear in mind, though, that while a hand sanitizer is definitely a good option, it may not work as well when your hands are wet or sweaty. Furthermore, a sanitizer won’t be able to clean your hands of sticky grease to which many viruses can cling on to.
It has been made clear now that we shouldn't underestimate the power of soap in fighting viruses. Thus, if you don’t have access to hand sanitizers, no need to panic. A good wash with any form of soap, lasting about 20 seconds, will certainly do the job. Moreover, even a small amount of soapy water will cover your palms easily with rubbing.
Image source - Wikimedia Commons
“Water is not very effective alone in washing the virus off our hands. Alcohol-based products work better. But nothing beats soap – the virus detaches from the skin and falls apart very readily in soapy water,” Thordarson explains in his Twitter profile. Also, you don’t need antibacterial soap or soap containing super-harsh detergents. Use plain soap and water, and it will do the trick if you give it a little bit of time.
While the novel coronavirus threat is indeed real, the need to maintain basic hygiene and washing your hands regularly can have positive long-lasting impacts on your overall health. It can certainly help stop the spread of this outbreak and also end up inculcating some healthy sanitation habits in us with it.