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Soap, Hand Hygiene, and Why it's Important

Updated: May 23, 2020

As I watch the news in the wake of COVID-19 and grocery shop, I am utterly shocked when I see people fighting over hand sanitizer and see empty shelves where they once stood; meanwhile the soap aisle is nicely stocked. Why is this shocking? Because (A.), people apparently don't take the time to wash their hands, and (B.), because people actually believe hand sanitizer is more effective than soap. News flash: IT ISN'T.

Think about everything you touch with your hands: counter top surfaces, door knobs, elevator buttons, animals, pens, other people, your sneezes and coughs. Contact with anything can contain up to trillions of germs. When germs come into contact with your hands and are not properly removed by hand-washing, it can be spread to other people and/or surfaces. Those germs can even affect you! When these germs make contact with people or yourself (especially mucus membranes such as your eyes, nose, and mouth), they will multiply given the proper conditions and potentially cause a biological reaction.

So why does hand-washing with soap work? Hold on, y'all. It's about to get real scientific here. Soap contains hydrophilic (water-loving) and hydrophobic (water-repelling) ends. Having ends with opposite attractions allows the soap to become an emulsifier, trapping the oil and germs. When combined with water, it literally will take off these oils and germs when you rinse. Here's a video by Lush that explains this a bit simpler.

Now how does it work against viruses? Viruses are RNA, protein, and lipids. RNA is the virus' genetic material. Proteins help the virus function and replicate. Lipids coat the virus, forming an outer shell that protects it and helps assist with spread and infection of other cells. While viruses do not have super strong bonds (covalent) to hold them together, they do have weaker ones (non-covalent). However, these bonds can be broken down by simply using soap! Soap contains lipid-like molecules called (amphiphiles). These lipid-like molecules compete with the lipid structure of the virus, working to break it down. When combined with water and thorough scrubbing, the virus then detaches.

Why is it better than hand sanitizer? Hand sanitizer is great if you're in a pinch and can help remove some forms of bacteria. Key word: SOME. Sure the main ingredient is alcohol however, if it's not greater than 60%, it isn't effective, and as mentioned earlier, it is limited to what it can remove. Another downside to simply relying on hand sanitizer is the efficacy of it depends on the state of your hands. If you touched money and need to sanitize (which you should because cash is a breeding ground for bacteria not to mention 90% of bills have trace amounts of cocaine on it) then sure, hand sanitizer could be effective. If you're immunocompromised and can't get to a sink to fully wash, hand sanitizer is a great substitute!. But if you've got a lot of dirt and grime, or it's been awhile since you've washed your hands, hand washing with actual soap and water is much more effective and healthier for you because it can remove more germs and can lather enough to really get into the grooves of your hands and nails, ensuring they are squeaky clean. Now, when we look at hand sanitizer from a sustainability perspective, there is more waste in the use of sanitizer versus soap an water. For instance, hand sanitizer typically comes prepackaged in plastic bottles and sustainable alternatives are not common. Soap has plenty of sustainable options available. Sanitizer can be over-used as some people believe that simply using more will clean their hands more (yes, I've heard this pretty often). Soap and water is wash and go. As long as you follow proper hand washing protocol (massaging the palms, scraping under the nails, scrubbing for 20 seconds with the water off, please) you're better protected and good to go!

So on that note, here are my top soap recommendations:

Inspired to make a change in the world after witnessing the consequences plastic had on the beaches and surrounding environments, two sisters, Lindsey and Alison Delaplaine sought to create natural products that could be used by anyone and everyone. Plaine sells a variety of personal care products, including hand wash! Their handwash uses natural ingredients and essential oils like Aloe, coconut oil, bergamot, and lavender. Their products also come in a reusable aluminum bottle that you can send back for refills!

Fillaree is a small, women led soap business based here in the USA. Their soaps are made with quality organic ingredients and essential oils; the soap is so natural, it's even safe for our waterways! My favorite thing about Fillaree is their refill program. Either send the bottle/dispenser back to the company or go on the website to find a refill station near you!

Blueland is a sustainable, minimal waste cleaning product company that was featured on Shark Tank. Their cleaning products come in the form of concentrated refill pucks which is amazing because all you need to do is fill their provided glass containers with water, drop the puck, and you're good to go! Need more? Just re-order the pucks and save on shipping emissions!

Clean Cult is another sustainable, low waste cleaning product brand making large strides in the sustainable cleaning industry. The main cleaning ingredient in their products is coconut! The first shipment you receive is already pre-mixed and ready for use in glass bottles. Refills are delivered in sustainable packaging such as milk cartons. Clean Cult's sustainablilty continues in their shipping process as they are carbon neutral.

Bar Soaps

Bar soaps are a fantastic product to use for hand washing. I find that people are turned off by them because they're a bit old-fashioned. However, they are literally the most sustainable hand soaps ever! If you're able to find them in paper packaging or even zero packaging, all that you're using is the soap itself. No bottles or metal springs! I also feel like they last a lot longer than liquid soaps. Typically when we use liquid soaps, we use a whole pump. Whereas with bar soaps, we just need a little bit of friction and water to create a nice, thick lather.

Like I mentioned, any bar soap with sustainable packaging and ingredients is perfectly fine. A brand that I recommend is Dr. Bronner's. Their soaps are made with certified Fair Trade ingredients and they are packaged in 100% post-consumer recycled paper.

Depending on where you live, there are places where you can go and refill your soap. While I was in Dallas, I stumbled upon a shop called Follain which specializes in skin care. They also happen to sell hand soap and will refill on site. Finding a place where you can refill soap can be a bit difficult but the money, time, and environmental resources you save makes it all worth it.

TLDR: Soap is more effective at cleaning your hands than general hand sanitizer. Stay safe. Protect yourself from COVID-19 and other harmful viruses by using proper hygiene and washing your hands!


BIOL 111 - Introductory Biology I

BIOL 351 - Fundamentals of Microbiology


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