Water, regular soaps or antibacterial soaps?

Wash your hands – I think we are all more than familiar with advice like this lately and we are starting to not even perceive its meaning anymore. But washing our hands carefully should not only be considered in the context of a pandemic. Sanitizing facilities can help prevent more than 30% of all diarrheal diseases and about 20% respiratory infections. However, about 3 billion people around the world still need access to basic handwashing facilities, and from the ones who have access, only half choose to use them.

That’s right, some people prefer washing their hands only with water, or they don’t wash their hands at all. Rubbing your hands with water is better than no washing, because it could hypothetically help reduce the number of bacteria on your hands. But germs are not that easy to get rid of and there is no doubt that soapy water is the most efficient option. So why does soap actually work?

Bacteria (and most viruses, including coronaviruses) are formed of a phospholipid bilayer on the surface, which means fats. The membranes that surround bacteria are like the ones of our own cells, so fatty acids and other proteins are found on our hands, from the dead cells in our skin. This makes hands a perfect surface for “collecting” bacteria or viruses, which easily get stuck to this organic matter. Regular soaps and detergents contain chemical compounds known as amphiphiles, which are similar to the phospholipids found in the bacterial membrane. Imagine that bacteria are stuck to the organic compounds on our hands like a Velcro. The amphiphiles will decrease the surface tension of water and will try to “take the place” of the bacterial phospholipids, detaching them from our skin. This way, bacteria and viruses are cleansed off our hands efficiently, if soap is used for the right amount of time (about 20 seconds).

Antibacterial soaps contain other substances, like alcohol or benzalkonium chloride, that don’t just detach germs from our skin, but also kill them. These substances bond with the fatty acids from the germs’ membrane and break it, exposing the inside of the cell. The process is called denaturation and the cellular proteins, genetic material and the other components are lost as the bacterium dies.

Both regular and antibacterial soaps have their pros and cons. You might think the antibacterial one is safer, but it is more expensive, and some people think it can also kill the “beneficial” bacteria on our skin. The majority of soaps on the market also kill germs, but if you decide you want to go for regular soap, make sure to thoroughly wash your hands, since it requires a longer time to get to its maximum efficiency.

Author : Mara Dinu

REFERENCES

https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/antibacterial-soap-you-can-skip-it-use-plain-soap-and-water

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/12/science-soap-kills-coronavirus-alcohol-based-disinfectants

https://www.wateraid.org/us/media/global-handwashing-day-hygiene-in-schools-healthy-children

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