Keep calm and wash your hands

Mar 19, 2020

By Devina Thiono

With Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) still going strong, we’re hearing the phrase “wash your hands” more frequently. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has also listed proper hand-washing with soap and water as one of the main steps to protect ourselves from COVID-19. So, how could this simple regimen protect us?

Hand-washing does not kill germs but it does remove them from our hands through the proper act of lathering-scrubbing-rinsing. Placing our hands under running water alone can help remove some germs. Add soap into the mix, even more germs can be washed off from our skin!

The soap’s composition is what makes it a good agent to interact with different germs and prevent them from infecting us. The three main ingredients of soap are fat or oils + alkali or basic salt + water. This mixture allows the soap to be amphipathic – having both polar and nonpolar nature. Polar molecules can be mixed with water, while non-polar molecules, such as oil, can’t be mixed into water. This amphipathic nature of soap is what enables them to interact with many germs to wash them away.

As you use soap, the polar heads of the soap will interact with water while the nonpolar tails will interact with the germs. As you rinse your soap-lathered hands with water, these germs can now be lifted off from the hand and into the drain.

Second to soap is hand-sanitizer which has been in high demand recently. CDC recommends hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. This concentration is effective enough to disrupt the outer layer of many viruses and bacteria, preventing them from infecting us. However, not all viruses and bacteria are affected by alcohol, such as Cryptosporidium, norovirus, and Clostridium difficile. In the case of C. difficile, the bacteria can form protective spores that cannot be penetrated by alcohol. However, hand washing with soap can physically remove the spores from your hands. Additionally, hand sanitizer will not work properly when our hands are greasy. Hence, soap is still the winner! 

On a side note, before you run to the store to get all the soap you can, just remember other people also need to wash their hands to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Keep calm and wash your hands 🙂

Edited by Mike Pablo and Rachel Cherney