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How Does Soap Work, Anyway?

Alexis Abruscato

One of the messages we are hearing every day right now as we all navigate the COVID-19 ordeal is the simple reminder to Wash Your Hands. As children, we are all taught the importance of washing our hands until it becomes (or should become) a second nature activity - like buckling up your seatbelt when you get in a car, or putting on a helmet when you ride a bike (you do do all those things, right? RIGHT?).

But as you stand at your sink umpteen times a day during our current situation, singing the Happy Birthday song to yourself over and over, have you ever stopped to wonder how exactly soap works? Why soap? Why not just water?

Well, here's the secret about soap: it doesn't actually dissolve or kill the germs, bacteria and other multitude of yuckies on your hands. On the contrary, I like to think of soap as a really friendly molecule. Soap molecules are like that friend of yours in your high school who was friends with everyone - from cheerleaders to goths to nerds. Soap molecules have two ends: one that's shaped like a ball that really likes water (hydrophilic), and one end that's shaped like a long tail and really likes oils (lipophilic).

This duality is why it's so important that we rub our hands together when we use soap in order to make it an effective surfactant. The friction of rubbing the soap over the surfaces we want clean allows the end that likes oils to start collecting the grime and gunk off our skin and when we go to rinse, the water-loving end of the soap hitches a ride on the water and pulls all that gunk right off your hands and down the drain. Bam! Clean hands!

So why the 'happy birthday song two times' mantra? Knowing how soap works now, you can see why a quick pass with the soap isn't necessarily enough to thoroughly clean off all the yuckies. Experts recommend you actively wash your hands for at least 20 seconds because the soap has a much higher chance of grabbing onto & sending the germs, bacteria and grime to their watery grave when you actively rub your soapy hands together for an extended period of time.

One side effect of washing your hands so frequently can be dry skin. (Mine can get so dry, my knuckles crack & bleed...ick!) To combat this, look for soaps that contain skin-loving ingredients like glycerin and high quality butters and oils. Also, be sure to use a moisturizing lotion immediately afterwards in order to restore moisture & keep your hands soft.

Was that the coolest thing you learned today? I sure hope so!

Thanks for reading & take care of yourself and your family during this difficult and stressful time!

-Alexis

 

Did you know that the earliest evidence of civilizations using soap was all the way back in 2800 BC? Whaaaa? Those people were amazing! If you want to learn more, visit the wikipedia page for soap here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soap

 

 


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