Handwashing: you’ve heard it from everyone who knows. Wash your hands. Wash them with soap. Wash them for at least 20 seconds. Wash them often.
Everyone who’s saying that is right. Along with social distancing and masks, complete and thorough handwashing is the way to stop the spread of the coronavirus. And that’s how we beat it, not with bluster but with science and discipline, by stopping its spread.
Despite how it might be perceived, handwashing has always been more than a matter of routine or decorum. Right now, during the pandemic, it’s much more than that. Grand as it sounds, it can be a matter of life and death.
Handwashing does two important things in preventing this particular infection. It does what handwashing with soap always does. It removes viruses and the oils and grease that can harbor them from our hands. In the case of the coronavirus, though, it’s doing more. It’s crippling the infectious agent, breaking it apart.
If there’s a secret weapon against the coronavirus, it’s not the latest unproven miracle cure. It’s soap. Which means people stocking up on hand sanitizer are settling for the second-best defense.
It’s the specific dual nature of the soap molecule that makes it so effective. One end of the soap molecule is water-loving (hydrophilic) and the other is water-hating (hydrophobic). The key to all this is that the water-hating end is also attracted to fat. When you wash your hands with soap, the fat-loving end of the soap molecule breaks down grease and oils so they can be dissolved by the water-loving end.
The same process works on the virus. Coronaviruses aren’t especially tough as organisms. They’re encased inside a lipid (fatty) envelope. The fat-loving end of soap breaks apart the protective coating while the water-loving end dissolves or critically weakens the virus. Rinsing your hands with water then removes it from your skin completely.
Understanding how soap works is one thing. Committing to washing as thoroughly and regularly as needed is another. In addition to washing for at least 20 seconds to reach all the crevices in the skin, we need to be aware of when a change in location or task requires us to wash our hands again.
People Who Know
Stopping the spread of the coronavirus isn’t a matter of opinion, but of science, which dictates that we practice social distancing, wear masks when situations require them and keep the hard surfaces that viruses love wiped down and disinfected.
When it comes to handwashing, there’s no disagreement. In lieu of soap, in a pinch, hand sanitizer can be used, but unless it’s at least 60% alcohol, hand sanitizer isn’t going to be as effective.
Soap should always be the first choice. Being smart about interactions and how we go about things, following the recommendations of people who know isn’t just how we save ourselves. It’s how we save each other.