Popular Science

Why basic soap is so shockingly effective


SOAP, WATER, AND TIME: That’s the recipe for healthy paws. For thousands of years, entire religions and cultures have leaned on the practice for cleanlines­s, but it’s become more popular in the past two centuries as the sanitizing power of sudsing agents and running H2O have become more clear. Still, is the simple act as effective at thwarting microbes as we think?

“Hand-washing is a catchall preventive measure,” explains Emory University epidemiolo­gist Matthew Freeman; it rids our skin of foodborne germs, chemicals, and other undesirabl­e substances. The suds, for the most part, don’t kill pathogens. Soap is a surfactant, which means it makes it easier to clear away oils and dirt. Water then rinses off the contaminan­ts, carrying along microbes for the ride. “By rubbing your hands together, you create the friction to get them off,” Freeman says. Health experts recommend doing this for 20 to 30 seconds for maximum effectiven­ess.

Such rigor can clean off anything from E. coli to the novel coronaviru­s. A study in the American Journal of Public Health suggests that regular hand-washing cuts cases of gastrointe­stinal illnesses by 30 percent and of respirator­y infections by 20 percent.

Still, the safeguard isn’t a universal solution. Nearly half the world’s population doesn’t have access to a sink and a bottle of Dial. There’s also the question of whether what we do after we wash our hands helps or harms the pathogen-stripping process. So far medical researcher­s know that wet skin can pick up loads more bacteria, possibly rendering the whole sanitizing process useless. Wiping fingers and palms with a paper towel might prove better than running them under a jet air dryer, but that step of this seemingly simple formula needs to be tested and probed by many more folks.

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