Hand sanitizers or soap? Which is scientifically proven to work best to keep us safer? Soap versus hand sanitizers has become more of an issue than ever!
Let’s look at the science behind soap. And look at the science behind hand sanitizers. We’ll see how each one works and whether or not they destroy viruses and bacteria. Then compare the two. We’ll find our answer. Go science.
I wouldn’t give up my opposable thumbs, but the downside is that our invaluable hands have plenty of nooks and crannies where bacteria and viruses can hide.
Ask any crime scene specialist! Science is knowledge. (And can be used for or against you in a court of law.) Today, we’ll use the science to benefit us!
THE SCIENCE OF VIRUSES
When we cough, or especially when we sneeze, tiny droplets from our airways can fly! (gross) And at the time of this post, the controversy over airborne transmission of COVID-19 rages. (It is currently thought that coronavirus transmits via larger droplet transmission. Larger droplets fall quickly, onto surfaces within six feet.)
But let’s go back to virus science so we can scientifically prove if soap or hand sanitizer wins.
These droplets end up on surfaces. They dry out quickly. But the viruses remain active. (Viruses are technically not alive. We won’t go into the why today.)
Human skin is an ideal surface for a virus.
The proteins and fatty acids in the membranes of our dead skin cells interact with the virus.
When you touch a surface with a virus particle, it will stick to your skin and get transferred on to your hands.
HERE’S THE BAD PART:
If you then touch your face, especially your eyes, nostrils, or mouth, you can infect yourself.
And it turns out that most people touch their face once every two to five minutes. Almost half of face touches involve mouth, nose, and eyes. Those are direct pathways for bacteria and viruses to enter our bodies.
Try your best not to touch your face! Not to bite your nails or cuticles. Pick your nose. Just…DON’T!
VIRUS CELL MEMBRANES = THE WEAK LINK
Coronaviruses are like many viruses. They have a protected outer surface made of a lipid (fatty) bilayer.
For our purposes, this means they have a head region that is attracted to water (hydrophilic), and a tail region that is repulsed by water. (hydrophobic)
In a water environment (aka you and me), the outer coating forms with the heads out. This helps the virus break through our cell membranes and hijack our cells. (UGH)
BUT…this lipid bilayer is also the virus’ weakest link!
THE SCIENCE OF SOAP!
Our superhero, soap comes to the rescue. Soap contains fat-like substances known as amphiphiles. They are similar to the lipids in the virus membrane.
The soap molecules compete with the lipids. They break up the regularity of the virus membrane.
The soap not only loosens the “glue” between the virus and our skin but also the interactions that hold the proteins, lipids, and genetic material in the virus together.
Soap dissolves the fat membrane of the virus – and the virus falls apart! HUZZAH!
But soap doesn’t stop there!
Soap forms particles of their own that surround the virus parts. Apply water, and you’ll wash that bubble with the nasty virus down the drain!
The bubble of soap that circles the broken pieces of virus is called a micelle.
In addition, the rubbing motion while washing with soap and water removes some of the dirty surface skin cells. Who needs those guys, anyway?
But we can’t carry around sinks with running water!
THE SCIENCE OF HAND SANITIZERS
Hand Sanitizers = Hero?
Let’s look at the science.
Sure, we can read the label of the bottle below but we need to know how to interpret it…which you’ll be able to do because you’re learning about the science of hand sanitizers here!
Have you seen a movie or show when someone gets shot? In westerns or survival movies, the characters sometimes pour alcohol on the wound. The victim winces. The hero takes a swig before expertly beginning his or her patch job.
We laugh or roll our eyes. Or think it’s a good idea, pause the show, and make ourselves a Cosmo.
There is something to be said for that! (The cosmos…pouring alcohol on a wound can cause tissue damage)
Alcohols perturb the structural arrangement of the membrane lipids. The cell membrane collapses. Scientifically proven!
Alcohol also denatures or disrupts the virus proteins. Viruses have that spikey part, used to penetrate our cells. That is made up of protein.
As the virus breaks down from the alcohol attack, its parts aren’t surrounded in a bubble of soap molecules. (micelle) They crumble. Think of it like taking the nails (or those protein spikes) out of a picture frame. The frame would fall apart.
Okay, there are a few addendums for hand sanitizers to achieve hero status.
The CDC recommends at least 60% alcohol by volume to effectively knock those viruses on their microscopic butts.
Interestingly, the FDA recently increased their recommendation to not less than 94.9 alcohol by volume.
It takes about 30 seconds of rubbing to achieve benefits.
This way you can be more certain that those virus bonds are breaking. (No water to wash it all away…)
Non-alcohol antiseptics rely on benzlkonium chloride instead of alcohol. Don’t be fooled.
Be sure to read the labels!
Don’t purchase anything unless it has at least 60% ethanol or isopropyl alcohol. Not even if it’s on sale.
HAND SANITIZERS OR SOAP? WHICH IS SCIENTIFICALLY PROVEN TO WORK BEST?
In our side-by-side comparison, here are two drawbacks of hand sanitizers….
Good rule of thumb:
If your hands are dirty, such as before and after eating, using a restroom, playing sports or engaging in any outdoor activities, hand sanitizer won’t be effective.
The sanitizer won’t eliminate the dirt, where the viruses could be hanging out.
We aren’t rubbing hard either, so no surface skin cells are eliminated.
SOAP OR HAND SANITIZERS? FINAL VERDICT
Hand sanitizers DO offer solid protection when you’re out and about, provided you follow the guidelines!
Which is the best? Science tells us :
The moment I walk in the door, I wash my hands thoroughly with soap and water. I want you to do this, too!
No, I never sang the happy birthday song before researching this post, but I will from now on. I hope you do as well!