Washing our hands is something most do multiple times every day. But why is it important? Why is it so effective? To state the obvious, we wouldn't want to eat with muddy, dirty hands, but what about the things we cannot see. How effective is handwashing against germs? Viruses? Bacteria?
Let's take a closer look at viruses. In essence, viruses are little traveling packages of genetic material, either DNA or RNA, that are encased in lipids and proteins. Lipids are fatty, oil-like molecules that repel water, thus maintaining the structure of the virus in the aqueous (meaning water-based) environment of our bodies and the world. Viruses attach themselves to surfaces, including your hands, waiting for a free ride to your mouth or nose. Once they have access to your cells, they invade and use them to copy their genetic material to make more. This ultimately results in the affected cell's death, which is responsible for making us sick.
Bacteria, on the other hand, are defined cells. Much more complex, they have cellular walls made of peptidoglycan. These membranes are usually more defined and can have multiple layers, including lipids and proteins. They can enter your body in the same way, but they use you as an environment to divide and reproduce, thus taking essential nutrients from your body for themselves. The important thing to notice here is the structural differences in the cellular membrane of the bacteria and the viruses.
Now let's take a look at soap. We are all taught to wash our hands, rub with soap and sing a song. Studies have shown that a 20-second handwashing is the MOST effective way to remove germs. Why is that? The answer to this question lies in the mechanism of soap itself.
Soap is made up of a combination of a strong base and a lipid. Most bar soap uses Lye, one of the strongest bases, and an oil combination. Olive oil, palm oil, coconut oil, shea butter, they all work. A chemical reaction called saponification occurs when the base and lipids bond to form a new molecule. These molecules have a unique property that allows them to interact with both aqueous liquids, due to the hydrophilic (water-loving) properties of Lye, and organic substances due to the hydrophobic (water-repelling) properties of the oils used. Because of this interaction, oil and water do not separate when soap is present; they mix! It follows that there are two main ways that soap can make a difference in the germ count on your hands. Let's look at viruses first.
Because of the structure of viruses, they are extremely susceptible to soap molecules. The lipid layer that protects them can be disrupted if exposed to soap long enough. Studies show that 20 seconds of exposure to soap molecules allows them to insert themselves into the protective membrane of the virus, essentially forcing them to break apart. The viral particles will simply rinse harmlessly down the drain.
Looking at bacterial cells works in the more obvious way: germs use their hydrophobic properties to "grab on" to your hands. Because soap can interact with oil-based molecules, it can break apart these bonds and help the germs to "slip off" in the water. This aspect is the key to removing most bacterial cells. The lipid properties of bacterial membranes allow them to "grab on" to your hands, and maybe even stick through a good rinse of water, but if you use soap, they don't stand a chance. The soap molecules will encase the bacterial cell and force it to mix with the water molecules and wash down the drain.
Interestingly, it has also been shown that drying your hands is equally as important as washing. The use of a clean, dry cloth to rub off your hands removes debris and bacteria extremely effectively. So take the time to wash and dry your hands.
Here at Ladson's, our most simple soap is also our most versatile and effective. Try our Just Soap to keep your hands germ-free without chemicals or allergens today.