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COVID-19 Tip #2 for Health and Safety

Blogs from April, 2020


Worried that the soap that you are washing with is not as good at killing coronavirus because it is not “antibacterial?”  Don’t.  It’s the soap, itself, that is important.

Bacterial infections are caused by bacteria.  Viral infections are caused by viruses. Antibiotic drugs usually kill bacteria, but they aren't effective against viruses, and the coronavirus is (you guessed it) a virus. 

Unlike bacteria, viruses can't survive without a host. They can only reproduce by attaching themselves to cells. In most cases, they reprogram the cells to make new viruses until the cells burst and die. In other cases, they turn normal cells into malignant or cancerous cells.  Coronavirus is like a terrorist hijacking and crashing an airplane!

Thus, the coronavirus is not a living organism, but a protein molecule (RNA) covered by a protective layer of lipid (fat).  When the coronavirus is absorbed by cells in your nose, mouth, eyes or lungs, it changes the cells’ genetic code (i.e. it causes a mutation) and hijacks them into becoming aggressor and multiplier cells.

Since the coronavirus is not a living organism but a protein molecule, it is not killed, but decays on its own. The disintegration of a virus depends on the temperature, humidity and type of material where it lies.  Good news!  There are things that you can do to disintegrate the virus a lot faster.

The virus is very fragile; the only thing that protects it is a thin outer layer of fat.  So what’s a good way to destroy the protein molecule?  Go on the offense and destroy its defense!  Yes, strip away and destroy its fat layer (we have yet another reason to hate fat!).

So can we destroy the fat by rinsing with water alone?  Nada. That won’t do it.  We must use soap.

Water does not mix with fat or oil, but soap can mix with both water and with oil. Why? The soap molecule has two different ends, one that is hydrophilic (a polar head) that binds with water and the other that is hydrophobic (a non-polar hydrocarbon tail) that binds with grease and oil.

When you try to wash a greasy pan with mere water, it will just run off without picking up the dirty, oily particles that cling to the surface.  Thousands of years ago, though, people figured out how to clean grease and fat off of things with water. If they took a fatty acid (like rendered fat from a cow or sheep) and mixed it with an alkaline substance (like water mixed with ashes), it would produce a thick, brown curd that was incredibly efficient at getting dirt to wash away. People did this as far back as ancient Roman times.  That was when soap was first made.

To get technical, soaps are mixtures of sodium or potassium salts of fatty acids which can be derived from oils or fats by reacting them with an alkali (such as sodium or potassium hydroxide) at 175°–212° Fahrenheit in a process known as saponification.  When grease or oil (non-polar hydrocarbons) are mixed with a soap- water solution, the soap molecules work as a bridge between polar water molecules and non-polar oil molecules. Since soap molecules have both properties of non-polar and polar molecules the soap can act as an emulsifier. An emulsifier is capable of dispersing one liquid into another immiscible liquid. This means that while oil (which attracts dirt) doesn't naturally mix with water, soap can suspend oil/dirt in such a way that it can be removed.

Soap or detergent is great for destroying coronavirus because the foam CUTS the FAT layer that protects the protein molecule (that is why you have to rub your hands for 20 seconds or more, to make a lot of foam).

By dissolving the fat layer, the protein molecule disperses and breaks down on its own.  It’s like Josh and the Big Wall in Veggie Tales!  You destroy the wall and conquer what’s inside!

This is also why the bactericide in “antibacterial” soaps is not what is protecting you from coronavirus.  It’s the soap, itself, that is doing the work, not the bactericide.  Besides, antibacterial soaps (sometimes called antimicrobial or antiseptic soaps) contain certain chemicals, like triclosan, that is not found in plain soaps. FYI, the EPA regulates the use of triclosan as a pesticide. 

Heat also melts fat which is why it is good to use water above 77 degrees Fahrenheit when you wash your hands, clothes and everything. In addition, hot water makes more foam and that makes the soap even more useful. 

On a related note, hand sanitizer contains alcohol.  The alcohol in it dissolves fat, especially the external lipid layer of the virus.

So wash your hands long and frequently with very warm water, and stay healthy!

Hope this helps!

(written by a non-chemist lawyer who just happens to remember a little from Mrs. Dougherty's Chemistry II class and Mrs. Meyer’s Biology II class at Dulles High School)

Sources: The World of Molecules, the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Irene Ken and the Washington Post

Rick Davis

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