(We don’t want to get into a debate about whether or not viruses are technically alive; feel free to substitute “deactivate/deactivates” for “kill/kills” as you are reading if you would prefer.)
Due to recent events, people are more vigilant about their health than ever. While social distancing may the best most effective way to prevent the spread of a virus like coronavirus, washing your hands with soap and water is another way to protect yourself, and is more effective than other options such as hand sanitizer.
So what makes soap and water so effective against a virus? Here is how soap kills a virus like COVID-19.
This is what a soap molecule looks like:
As you can see, it is a two-sided molecule. One side, the “salt head", of the molecule is hydrophilic, which means that it mixes with water and is water soluble. The other side, the long tail made up of fats, is hydrophobic, which means that it is “repelled” by water. However, it does mix with other fats/oils.
(A soap molecule. The "salt head" (in this case on the right side of the image) is hydrophilic, and bonds with water but not fats. The fatty tail (in this case on the left side of the image) is hydrophobic, and bonds with fats but not water.)
Have you heard the phrase about something mixing like oil and water? Oil and water do not mix together.
Why is that relevant? Viruses exist inside of a protective coating of proteins and fat(s). Since water does not bond with fats, it does not bond with the virus molecules. This means you are relying on the friction created by the water and rubbing your hands together to remove the germ molecules. While simply running water over your hands can remove some of them, water and a good scrubbing technique can only get you so far.
Since soap molecules are both hydrophilic and hydrophobic, it is able to bond with both water and oil. These bonds connect the water to the oil in a way that wasn’t possible before. Not only does this allows the water to carry away both the soap molecules and the oil molecules since they are now all bonded together, soap also dissolves the fatty membrane. Dissolving this membrane is how soap kills a virus.
When trying to protect yourself from a virus, social distancing is the most effective method. However, washing your hands with simple soap and water is the next best option due to the structure of a soap molecule. Soap kills a virus like COVID-19 by dissolving the protective oil and protein layer of a virus, rendering it unable to reproduce, and able to easily be washed away by soap.
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