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The Best Soap for the Coronavirus? Any Real Soap.
Photo: Maurian Soares Salvador/iStock

The Best Soap for the Coronavirus? Any Real Soap.

Wash your hands. It’s the advice that’s everywhere right now, and no wonder—along with social distancing, it’s one of the best ways to slow the spread of the coronavirus. But even in that simple dictate, there’s still room for questions: Bar or liquid? Antibacterial or not? Mass-produced or those marketed as “natural,” like the handmade ones you can find at a farmers market? After receiving several reader questions on the best kind of soap to kill the coronavirus, we talked to experts in chemistry and immunology to find out what does—and doesn’t—matter when you’re washing your hands.

What type of soap kills the coronavirus?

The array of brands, styles, and types of soap out there can be dizzying. But in this case, the answer to the best type of soap to use is both simple and easily within your grasp: Use the soap you already have.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, soap is defined as a fat or oil (including either animal fats or plant oils, such as olive oil, coconut oil, or palm oil) that has been treated with an alkali (such as lye) to make alkali salts of fatty acids. The reason soap is effective has to do with what happens on a molecular level when soap and the coronavirus meet.

“This particular virus is coated with a lipid coat,” Erin Sheets, an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Minnesota Duluth, told us. “Also in that lipid envelope are membrane proteins—the spike proteins that recognize your proteins inside your lungs to infect you. Those proteins need to have that lipid membrane to work. What soap is doing is actually dissolving and washing away those lipids.”

All soaps—regardless of type or form—can accomplish this effectively, said Sheets.

“Any soap will do the trick,” she said. “Whether it’s liquid soap or bar soap, fancy-pants soap or from the farmer’s market. Cheap-o soap works great, even the little hearts and seashells soap in your grandma’s bathroom.”

Although you can use antibacterial soap if it’s already in your bathroom, Sheets notes it isn’t necessary or any more effective than other kinds of soap. There is one type of product, however, that she suggests steering clear of when you’re washing your hands: Don’t attempt to swap in “soap-free” skin cleansers, which may not be able to dissolve the virus’s lipid coating as soap can. Instead, stick to soap when you wash your hands.

“Just do what’s been around for millennia,” Sheets said. “Use soap.”

The best way to wash your hands

While any type of soap will work, you do need to wash your hands in the right way for it to be effective.

“Any soap, used properly, will be effective in disinfecting your hands from coronavirus,” said Erin Sorrell, an assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at Georgetown University.

The CDC and the WHO have each laid out step-by-step instructions for handwashing. Here are a few things to keep in mind to get the cleanest wash.

Get the temperature just right—not too hot

Frequent handwashing is pivotal to slowing the spread of the coronavirus. All that extra washing, though, can also lead to chapped hands that are not only uncomfortably dry but could even crack, opening you up to additional risk. One way to combat dryness from frequent washes is by using a good moisturizer on your hands after you wash. But you can start keeping your skin moisturized as soon as you turn on the faucet.

“Hot water would actually dry [out] your hands quicker and it could lead to cracking that could make your hands susceptible to cuts,” said Sorrell. “So lukewarm water, or room temperature water, is great.”

Lather your whole hand

When you wash your hands, start by wetting them. Then lather up and keep on scrubbing to make sure that the soap comes into contact with every part of your hands.

“You want to create a really good lather,” said Sorrell. “You want to cover both your palms, the tops of your hands. You want to interlock your fingers and get all of your fingers covered, your nails, under your nails, and then your thumbs. Think about having the lather cover every surface of your hand.”

Take your time

Twenty seconds, the amount of scrubbing time the CDC recommends, can feel like a long time, and it can be tempting to cut corners. But it’s important to keep scrubbing for that full amount of time before you rinse, said Sorrell.

“It’s the amount of time that the soap is in contact with your hand that allows for the soap to be effective,” she said. “An effective contact time lets the soap do its job and inactivate the virus. That’s why that 20-second time period is critical.”

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