Daily life is different right now. And whether you are maintaining a semblance of your normal daily routine while employing social distancing, or you’re completely self-quarantining and isolating, it is equally important in all instances to wash hands (way more often than what seems like enough) and to make sure commonly touched items and surfaces are clean. But our cleaning is only as effective as the cleaning solutions and soaps that we use, right?
To minimize the risk of getting sick and spreading illness, it might seem like you need the strongest antibacterials and soap you can find–but that’s not actually the case. “You don’t need antibacterial or antiseptic soap to remove COVID-19 from your skin,” Dr. Andrew Pavia, Chief, Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at the University of Utah, explains. “Regular soap is great.
So why don’t you need to go into the internet trenches shopping for antibacterial soap? Well, first off, because COVID-19 is a virus, not a bacteria. But the scientific answer as to why soap works to protect us against COVID-19 is a technical one. Soap–whether it’s all natural, hand made, liquid, bar, or foamy–has a particularly molecular makeup, made up of what are actually called “soap molecules.” Soap molecules possess both hydrophobic (water-averse) and hydrophilic (water-attracting) properties. When introduced to water, the water-attracting parts of the tiny soap molecule point outward and, in turn, are able to dissolve fatty substances and lipids (this is why soap is so great for cleaning dishes). This is a particularly special quality in a time where the culprit of COVID-19 is a coronavirus–which is a virus that is encased inside of a lipid (aka fatty) envelope. Soap is able to dissolve the protective coating around the virus–making it less capable of surviving–while rinsing your hands off with water after breaking down the virus’s coat removes it from your skin completely.
“Basically, soap inactivates viruses to some degree when it breaks down the protective lipid layer on these viruses,” Dr. Pavia says. “By washing your hands with soap and water, you’re removing the virus and the mucous associated with the virus from your skin. And if it’s not on your skin, it’s not going to get inside of you.”
So what soaps are good to use? Dr. Pavia says that basically any soap is a smart choice. “The difference between buying soap in small batches or a commercial product is nothing in terms of effectiveness,” he explains. “They both remove surface contamination and lather, that’s what you want. If one of the questions people have is, ‘I have hand made soaps, are they okay to use?’ Yes, they are just fine. They are soap.”
The hand made soaps you bought at the farmer’s market months ago are all great choices. Really, the point is that washing your hands with soap of any kind is going to get the job done–and needs to happen frequently.
And although it’s considered a second line of defense (“It’s a backup and won’t work terribly well if your hands are soiled,” says Dr. Pavia.), a hand sanitizer you use should contain at least 60% alcohol to be considered effective. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer works by disabling RNA molecules in the coronavirus, preventing it’s ability to replicate and multiply. “I don’t recommend nonalcohol-based hand sanitizers,” Dr. Pavia says.
And just like with your hands, using your favorite soaps to wash surfaces with water can break down the virus and remove it. But if you’re looking for cleaners that are the most effective for disinfecting your space, not just any old cleaner will do. That means leaving your all-natural cleaning solutions to solely do the job of cleaning up grease and messes (which is an important step before disinfecting), but not relying on them to kill viruses.
But the question remains: What should you be focused on cleaning–and how often?
“You see ridiculous images of people cleaning sidewalks and street signs, but that’s completely useless and a waste of resources,” Dr. Pavia says. “We should focus on maintaining sanitation on the items we most commonly come into contact with–like bannisters, door knobs, faucets, computer keyboards, and phones. Really, when was the last time most people cleaned their phones? I think it’s reasonable to give your phone a quick wipe twice a day and other commonly touched surfaces a disinfectant wipe down once a day.”
Photo credits: William Gibson, 17, created a poster-generating website that puts song lyrics on a U.K. handwashing poster. File/Getty Images