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The Science Behind Soap


The Science Behind Soap – Quick reference: 

  • Washing your hands with soap prevents the spread of viruses. 
  • It is hard to break up viral particles, but it can be done with soap. 
  • We touch our faces… a lot.
  • Water isn’t enough – we need soap because it dissolves the glue that holds a virus together.
  • Hand sanitizer is helpful, but nothing beats soap! 
  • At the molecular level soap works to break things apart, but at a societal level, it holds everything together. We have a social responsibility to wash our hands frequently with soap. 

What the CDC really wants you to know about hand washing and why it’s important:

The act of hand washing has been ingrained in us since our earliest years. But a deadly pandemic now forces us to ask the question… are we actually doing it right?

Many diseases and viruses are spread quickly by not washing hands with soap and clean, running water. The CDC advises to “lather your hands by rubbing them together with soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails. Lathering and scrubbing hands creates friction, which helps lift dirt, grease, and microbes from skin. Microbes are present on all surfaces of the hand, often in particularly high concentration under the nails, so scrub the entire hand for at least 20 seconds.”

So can it really be true that deadly viruses, such as the new coronavirus, are no match for good old fashioned bar soap? We explore the science behind how soap removes bacteria from the skin and what makes it so effective. Read on for a breakdown explanation. 

The science behind soap’s virus fighting techniques:

Soap dissolves and disassembles the fat membrane of a virus, and then it falls apart and becomes inactive. Viruses can be active outside the body for hours, even days, so it is important to be frequently washing your hands with soap to really combat the spread of viruses. 

The structure of a virus – Palli Thordarson, a professor at the School of Chemistry at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, explains the building blocks of a virus “Most viruses consist of three key building blocks: RNA, proteins and lipids. The RNA is the viral genetic material — it is similar to DNA. The proteins have several roles, including breaking into the target cell, assisting with virus replication and basically being a key building block (like a brick in a house) in the virus structure. The lipids then form a coat around the virus, both for protection and to assist with its spread and cellular invasion. The RNA, proteins and lipids self-assemble to form the virus. Critically, there are no strong “covalent” bonds holding these units together. Instead, the viral self-assembly is based on weak “non-covalent” interactions between the proteins, RNA and lipids. Together, these act together like Velcro, so it is hard to break up the self-assembled viral particle. Still, we can do it — with soap!

The New Coronavirus COVID19 – We can apply this understanding of virus structure to the new coronavirus too. Thordarson continues by explaining “most viruses, including the coronavirus, are between 50-200 nanometers — so they truly are nanoparticles. Nanoparticles have complex interactions with surfaces they are on; it’s the same with viruses. Skin, steel, timber, fabric, paint and porcelain are very different surfaces. When a virus invades a cell, the RNA “hijacks” the cellular machinery like a computer virus and forces the cell to make fresh copies of its own RNA and the various proteins that make up the virus. These new RNA and protein molecules self-assemble with lipids (readily present in the cell) to form new copies of the virus. That is, the virus does not photocopy itself; it makes copies of the building blocks, which then self-assemble into new viruses. All those new viruses eventually overwhelm the cell, and it dies or explodes, releasing viruses that then go on to infect more cells.”

Deadly viruses end up in the airways, so when you cough or sneeze, tiny little droplets can travel up to 30 feet from your airways to another surface. The larger carrier, such as Coronavirus, are said to be able to travel 7 feet or more. Covering your coughs and sneezes, followed by thorough hand washing, is now more important than ever. 

⚠️ ORGANIC FIJI COVID-19 UPDATE: We are open, we are getting your orders out the door within 24 hours and we have lowered pricing / free shipping minimums to better serve you during this challenging pandemic. Read full COVID-19 address here.

The Coronavirus on your skin and other surfaces – Our hands are the most common area of the skin to come into contact with germs and virus microorganisms. Thordarson explains why the skin is such a perfect surface for viruses to thrive on. “These tiny droplets end up on surfaces and dry out quickly. But the viruses are still active. What happens next is all about supramolecular chemistry and how self-assembled nanoparticles (like the viruses) interact with their environment. Now it is time to introduce a powerful supramolecular chemistry concept that effectively says: Similar molecules appear to interact more strongly with each other than dissimilar ones. Wood, fabric and skin interact fairly strongly with viruses. Contrast this with steel, porcelain and at least some plastics, such as Teflon. The surface structure also matters. The flatter the surface, the less the virus will “stick” to the surface. Rougher surfaces can actually pull the virus apart. So why are surfaces different? The virus is held together by a combination of hydrogen bonds (like those in water) and hydrophilic, or “fat-like,” interactions. The surface of fibers or wood, for instance, can form a lot of hydrogen bonds with the virus. In contrast, steel, porcelain or Teflon do not form much of a hydrogen bond with the virus. So the virus is not strongly bound to those surfaces and is quite stable. For how long does the virus stay active? It depends. The novel coronavirus is thought to stay active on favorable surfaces for hours, possibly a day. What makes the virus less stable? Moisture (“dissolves”), sunlight (UV light) and heat (molecular motions). The skin is an ideal surface for a virus. It is organic, of course, and the proteins and fatty acids in the dead cells on the surface interact with the virus through both hydrogen bonds and the “fat-like” hydrophilic interactions. So when you touch a steel surface with a virus particle on it, it will stick to your skin and, hence, get transferred on to your hands. But you are not (yet) infected. If you touch your face, though, the virus can get transferred. And now the virus is dangerously close to the airways and the mucus-type membranes in and around your mouth and eyes. So the virus can get in and — voila! — you are infected. That is, unless your immune system kills the virus. If the virus is on your hands, you can pass it on by shaking someone’s else hand. Kisses, well, that’s pretty obvious. It goes without saying that if someone sneezes in your face, you’re stuck. So how often do you touch your face? It turns out most people touch the face once every two to five minutes. So you’re at high risk once the virus gets on your hands, unless you wash off the active virus. So let’s try washing it off with plain water. It might just work. But water “only” competes with the strong “glue-like” interactions between the skin and virus via hydrogen bonds. The virus is sticky and may not budge. Water isn’t enough.”

How soap fights viruses –
 Science journalist Ferris Jabr states “People typically think of soap as gentle and soothing, but from the perspective of microorganisms, it is often extremely destructive. A drop of ordinary soap diluted in water is sufficient to rupture and kill many types of bacteria and viruses, including the new coronavirus that is currently circling the globe. The secret to soap’s impressive might is its hybrid structure”.

Thordarson goes even further into the make up of soap by explaining that “soap contains fat-like substances known as amphiphiles, some structurally similar to the lipids in the virus membrane. The soap molecules “compete” with the lipids in the virus membrane. That is more or less how soap also removes normal dirt of the skin (see graphic at the top of this article). The soap molecules also compete with a lot other non-covalent bonds that help the proteins, RNA and the lipids to stick together. The soap is effectively “dissolving” the glue that holds the virus together. Add to that all the water. The soap also outcompetes the interactions between the virus and the skin surface. Soon the virus gets detached and falls apart like a house of cards due to the combined action of the soap and water. Boom, the virus is gone!”

Soap vs hand sanitizer:

Hand sanitizers aren’t always as dependable as soap. With a high concentration of ethanol, they can act similarly to soap by targeting bacteria and viruses and weakening their lipid membranes. However, there are some viruses that don’t even need lipid membranes to infect your cells, so they need more than sanitizer alone. This is where soap really shines. Robust scrubbing of your skin with a moisturizing soap and clean water not only focuses on the lipid membranes but also abolishes microbes from the skin, which is one of the reasons why hand-washing is more effective than sanitizer.

When you’re out and about an alcohol-based sanitizer can be a good backup when soap and water are not accessible. Just make sure you wash with a high lathering soap at your earliest convenience.

Thordarson states that “Alcohol-based products include all “disinfectants” and “antibacterial” products that contain a high share of alcohol solution, typically 60%-80% ethanol, sometimes with a bit of isopropanol, water and a bit of soap. Ethanol and other types of alcohol do not only readily form hydrogen bonds with the virus material but, as a solvent, are more lipophilic than water. Hence, alcohol does dissolve the lipid membrane and disrupt other supramolecular interactions in the virus. However, you need a fairly high concentration (maybe 60%-plus) of the alcohol to get a rapid dissolution of the virus. Vodka or whiskey (usually 40% ethanol) won’t dissolve the virus as quickly. Overall, alcohol is not as good as soap at this task. Nearly all antibacterial products contain alcohol and some soap, and that does help kill viruses. But some also include “active” bacterial killing agents, such as triclosan. Those, however, do basically nothing to the virus.”

Jonathan Corum

The professionals advice on beating the coronavirus with the wonders of soap –
 Thordarson concludes that “Nothing beats soap — the virus detaches from the skin and falls apart readily in soapy water. Supramolecular chemistry and nanoscience tell us not only a lot about how the virus self-assembles into a functional, active menace, but also how we can beat viruses with something as simple as soap.”

Jabr also expresses how effective good old fashioned soap can be – “Washing with soap and water is one of the key public health practices that can significantly slow the rate of a pandemic and limit the number of infections, preventing a disastrous overburdening of hospitals and clinics. But the technique works only if everyone washes their hands frequently and thoroughly. As the Canadian health officer Bonnie Henry said recently, ‘Wash your hands like you’ve been chopping jalapeños and you need to change your contacts!’ Even people who are relatively young and healthy should regularly wash their hands, especially during a pandemic, because they can spread the disease to those who are more vulnerable. Soap is more than a personal protectant; when used properly, it becomes part of a communal safety net. At the molecular level, soap works by breaking things apart, but at the level of society, it helps hold everything together. Remember this the next time you have the impulse to bypass the sink: Other people’s lives are in your hands.”

Which type of soap is best to use? 

🔸High lather performance soaps help to effectively scrub away germs and optimal virus protection 
🔸Natural soaps are gentle enough to perform frequent hand washing without damaging skin
🔸Soaps free from artificial colors and fragrances are less likely to strip your skin of needed nutrients
🔸Soaps with added ingredients such as raw coconut oil and other nourishing botanicals quench dry skin, preventing irritation and cracked skin

Organic Fiji’s Coconut Oil Infused Soap

Free of:
🔸Animal byproducts
🔸Artificial colors
🔸Artificial fragrances
🔸Chemicals & toxic ingredients

Unique benefits:

🔸Rich & creamy coconut oil lather
🔸Infused with high grade raw coconut oil
🔸Hand crafted using an ancient Fijian recipe
🔸Scented with pure and organic essential oils
🔸Vegan and cruelty free
🔸Clean pure & plant based
🔸Marine and wilderness safe
🔸Ethically sourced and produced

Organic Fiji’s mission is to bring you the traditions of island life and all the benefits earth’s harvest has to offer your body and soul. The active ingredient in all our products is certified organic, cold pressed, extra virgin coconut oil. We create unique, artisanal personal care and nutritional items, inspired by the tropics of the Fiji Islands. We will never compromise the quality of performance or the cleanliness of ingredients when designing our organic wellness range.

⚠️ ORGANIC FIJI COVID-19 UPDATE: We are open, we are getting your orders out the door within 24 hours and we have lowered pricing / free shipping minimums to better serve you during this challenging pandemic. Read full COVID-19 address here.