COVID-19's worst enemy

Just plain soap is just plain wonderful
John Thompson

Your greatest ally in the battle to stay healthy this spring - soap - is the enemy a virus never wants to see coming.

WWU Professor of Biology Craig Moyer's research focuses on marine microbial ecology of microbial mats at hydrothermal vents. John Thompson recently asked him about our favorite household virus killer. 

Soap seems like a ubiquitous item that we take for granted, but in reality it is an essential part of our effort to stay healthy because of its abilities to destroy bacteria and viruses. As the world scrambles to come up with a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, how is a simple household product our first and best line of defense?

First, let’s make sure we are talking about just soap, as many products today include the words “antibacterial” or even “antiviral” on them or have some collection of nonessential additives. There is absolutely no evidence that these additives help keep us any cleaner or safer from disease. In fact there is some evidence that these additives might help to spread antibiotic resistance. This promotes the false perception that what we cannot see needs to be eradicated and this perception tends to generate an overabundance of germophobia. Most bacteria and viruses in the world around us are not human pathogens and are either innocuous or can be beneficial.

Now fast-forward to our current situation, just plain soap is just plain wonderful. It is made by its namesake process called saponification, where basically any fat added to a strong base turns into a compound that has exceptional properties, being both water-hating and water-loving all in one. It is this ability that is extremely destructive to both bacteria and viruses. It attacks them by shredding their outer membranes, spilling their contents and stopping them in their tracks. No other tricks needed.

Virologists say our bodies begin to make antibodies to fight back against the coronavirus about 8-10 days after we first come in contact with it and our body begins to see it as a threat. Do our antibodies attack the virus inside us the same way soap does to the viruses on our skin?

No, soap is a physical destroyer to any single cell or virus capsule. Thanks to our skin, we are protected from this process. Antibodies are much more specific, and target receptors on the surface of these invading particles. Antibodies act to bind them together, or round them up until the "cavalry" - our white blood cells - arrives. After the biochemical alarm goes out, white blood cells enter the fray and gobble up and digest these offenders in a much more targeted fashion.

There seems to be some debate over how long we should wash our hands for soap to truly work its magic - what is your take on the debate?

Some is better that none. Still because it is a physical process we are trying to achieve, the longer the exposure time, the better. What you want is to use soap and warm water to get to all the surface area on your hands and in between fingers. So basically as long as you can stand it, and instead of humming "Happy birthday" use "Don't Stand So Close to Me" by the Police.

This story originally appeared in Western Today, WWU's daily news source. 

Photo illustration by Chris Baker