“The whole virus just basically collapses like a house of cards” says Pall Thordarson, professor of chemistry at the university of New South Wales.
“The main soap molecules are similar to the lipid membrane. And they will go into that membrane and start to mess it up. They’ll make it weaker and also pull some of the membrane away from the virus to make new soap bubbles – essentially we call micelles. And this will make the membrane less and less stable. And also the whole virus structure becomes less and less stable and starts to get pulled away by the soap… It’s like you have a crowbar and you try and pull it all apart and pull the bits and pieces. As soon as you’ve done that the virus is inactive and it is dead.”
How important is the way you wash?
“It’s actually really important for two reasons. You need to mix the soap and water, continuous exchange of the virus and the soap. You need to reach every surface on your hands. This is why the WHO and the CDC are recommending at least 20 seconds because it takes time to get everywhere. It’s very easy to do that with soap and water.”
What about hand sanitizers?
“Now hand sanitizers are great and they will kill the virus – the ethanol-based ones. But you have the problem, you still need to get everywhere. And when you’re rubbing a gel or a wipe it’s actually a little bit harder. Please use either one but if you don’t have access to hand sanitizers, which are getting hard to buy in some parts of the world, use soap.”
Bar of soap vs. foam vs. liquid?
“Looking at it as a chemist, I cannot fathom why there would be a difference. It’s more about the 20 second thing.”
Do I need anti-bacterial soap?
“One of the very “good news” about this virus, it is so fragile, the answer is no, we don’t need it. For the public, we just have to get rid of this virus for the next couple of months and then normal soap, normal sanitizer will do the job.”
Is just water enough?
The only thing you can do with water is literally wash it off. Water won’t destabilize the virus. The virus is slightly sticky on the skin or gets into crooks and nannies here, so water alone won’t wash it off.
Cold water ok?
“This is some thing the health workers have studied for a long time. There’s no preference, you might think, from a chemical point of view. Having a lukewarm or warmer water is probably better, but cold water is fine. It’s mainly about enough time and being comfortable.”
Why are viruses so difficult to kill?
“They are basically bad news packed in proteins wrapped with a greasy coat. They are such a simple – elegant – if we can use that word – way of transmitting RNA ( Ribonucleic acid) and it works. It’s a stable system that has evolved over many billions of years. And unfortunately it’s bad news for us.”
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