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Soap works better than alcohol and disinfectants at destroying the structure of viruses

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Sentry18

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Deadly viruses are no match for plain, old soap — here’s the science behind it

Published: March 9, 2020 at 8:15 a.m. ET
By
Palli Thordarson
Soap works better than alcohol and disinfectants at destroying the structure of viruses


This is how soap removes dirt, and bacteria, from the skin.
Palli Thordarson





Why does soap work so well on the new coronavirus and, indeed, most viruses? Because it is a self-assembled nanoparticle in which the weakest link is the lipid (fatty) bilayer.

That sounds scientific. Let me explain.

Soap dissolves the fat membrane, and the virus falls apart like a house of cards and “dies,” or rather, it becomes inactive as viruses aren’t really alive. Viruses can be active outside the body for hours, even days.

Disinfectants, or liquids, wipes, gels and creams containing alcohol (and soap) have a similar effect but are not as good as regular soap. Apart from alcohol and soap, antibacterial agents in those products don’t affect the virus structure much. Consequently, many antibacterial products are basically just an expensive version of soap in how they act on viruses. Soap is the best, but alcohol wipes are good when soap is not practical or handy, for example in office reception areas.

Soap outcompetes the interactions between the virus and the skin surface, and the virus gets detached and falls apart like a house of cards.
Supramolecular chemistry
But why, exactly, is soap so good? To explain that, I will take you through a journey of supramolecular chemistry, nanoscience and virology. I will try to explain this in generic terms, which means leaving out special chemistry terms. (I must point out that, while I am an expert in supramolecular chemistry and the assembly of nanoparticles, I am not a virologist.)



I have always been fascinated by viruses, as I see them as one of them most spectacular examples of how supramolecular chemistry and nanoscience converge.


Most viruses consist of three key building blocks: RNA, proteins and lipids.The RNA is the viral genetic material — it is similar to DNA. The proteins have several roles, including breaking into the target cell, assisting with virus replication and basically being a key building block (like a brick in a house) in the virus structure.

The lipids then form a coat around the virus, both for protection and to assist with its spread and cellular invasion. The RNA, proteins and lipids self-assemble to form the virus. Critically, there are no strong “covalent” bonds holding these units together.

Instead, the viral self-assembly is based on weak “non-covalent” interactions between the proteins, RNA and lipids. Together, these act together like Velcro, so it is hard to break up the self-assembled viral particle. Still, we can do it — with soap!

Most viruses, including the coronavirus, are between 50-200 nanometers — so they truly are nanoparticles. Nanoparticles have complex interactions with surfaces they are on; it’s the same with viruses. Skin, steel, timber, fabric, paint and porcelain are very different surfaces.

When a virus invades a cell, the RNA “hijacks” the cellular machinery like a computer virus and forces the cell to make fresh copies of its own RNA and the various proteins that make up the virus.

These new RNA and protein molecules self-assemble with lipids (readily present in the cell) to form new copies of the virus. That is, the virus does not photocopy itself; it makes copies of the building blocks, which then self-assemble into new viruses.

All those new viruses eventually overwhelm the cell, and it dies or explodes, releasing viruses that then go on to infect more cells. In the lungs, viruses end up in the airways and mucous membranes.

When you cough, or especially when you sneeze, tiny droplets from the airways can fly up to 30 feet. The larger ones are thought to be main coronavirus carriers, and they can go at least 7 feet. So, cover your coughs and sneezes!
Skin is an ideal surface for viruses
These tiny droplets end up on surfaces and dry out quickly. But the viruses are still active. What happens next is all about supramolecular chemistry and how self-assembled nanoparticles (like the viruses) interact with their environment.

Now it is time to introduce a powerful supramolecular chemistry concept that effectively says: Similar molecules appear to interact more strongly with each other than dissimilar ones. Wood, fabric and skin interact fairly strongly with viruses.

Contrast this with steel, porcelain and at least some plastics, such as Teflon. The surface structure also matters. The flatter the surface, the less the virus will “stick” to the surface. Rougher surfaces can actually pull the virus apart.

So why are surfaces different? The virus is held together by a combination of hydrogen bonds (like those in water) and hydrophilic, or “fat-like,” interactions. The surface of fibers or wood, for instance, can form a lot of hydrogen bonds with the virus.

In contrast, steel, porcelain or Teflon do not form much of a hydrogen bond with the virus. So the virus is not strongly bound to those surfaces and is quite stable.

For how long does the virus stay active? It depends. The novel coronavirus is thought to stay active on favorable surfaces for hours, possibly a day. What makes the virus less stable? Moisture (“dissolves”), sunlight (UV light) and heat (molecular motions).

The skin is an ideal surface for a virus. It is organic, of course, and the proteins and fatty acids in the dead cells on the surface interact with the virus through both hydrogen bonds and the “fat-like” hydrophilic interactions.

So when you touch a steel surface with a virus particle on it, it will stick to your skin and, hence, get transferred on to your hands. But you are not (yet) infected. If you touch your face, though, the virus can get transferred.

And now the virus is dangerously close to the airways and the mucus-type membranes in and around your mouth and eyes. So the virus can get in and — voila! — you are infected. That is, unless your immune system kills the virus.

If the virus is on your hands, you can pass it on by shaking someone’s else hand. Kisses, well, that’s pretty obvious. It goes without saying that if someone sneezes in your face, you’re stuck.

So how often do you touch your face? It turns out most people touch the face once every two to five minutes. So you’re at high risk once the virus gets on your hands, unless you wash off the active virus.

So let’s try washing it off with plain water. It might just work. But water “only” competes with the strong “glue-like” interactions between the skin and virus via hydrogen bonds. The virus is sticky and may not budge. Water isn’t enough.


 

Sentry18

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Continued:

Soap dissolves a virus’ structure
Soapy water is totally different. Soap contains fat-like substances known as amphiphiles, some structurally similar to the lipids in the virus membrane. The soap molecules “compete” with the lipids in the virus membrane. That is more or less how soap also removes normal dirt of the skin (see graphic at the top of this article).

The soap molecules also compete with a lot other non-covalent bonds that help the proteins, RNA and the lipids to stick together. The soap is effectively “dissolving” the glue that holds the virus together. Add to that all the water.

The soap also outcompetes the interactions between the virus and the skin surface. Soon the virus gets detached and falls apart like a house of cards due to the combined action of the soap and water. Boom, the virus is gone!

The skin is rough and wrinkly, which is why you need a fair amount of rubbing and soaking to ensure the soap reaches every nook and cranny on the skin surface that could be hiding active viruses.

Alcohol-based products include all “disinfectants” and “antibacterial” products that contain a high share of alcohol solution, typically 60%-80% ethanol, sometimes with a bit of isopropanol, water and a bit of soap.

Ethanol and other types of alcohol do not only readily form hydrogen bonds with the virus material but, as a solvent, are more lipophilic than water. Hence, alcohol does dissolve the lipid membrane and disrupt other supramolecular interactions in the virus.

However, you need a fairly high concentration (maybe 60%-plus) of the alcohol to get a rapid dissolution of the virus. Vodka or whiskey (usually 40% ethanol) won’t dissolve the virus as quickly. Overall, alcohol is not as good as soap at this task.

Nearly all antibacterial products contain alcohol and some soap, and that does help kill viruses. But some also include “active” bacterial killing agents, such as triclosan. Those, however, do basically nothing to the virus.

Alcohol works — to a degree
To sum up, viruses are almost like grease-nanoparticles. They can stay active for many hours on surfaces and then get picked up by touch. Then they get to our face and infect us because most of us touch our face frequently.

Water is not effective alone in washing the virus off our hands. Alcohol-based products work better. But nothing beats soap — the virus detaches from the skin and falls apart readily in soapy water.

Supramolecular chemistry and nanoscience tell us not only a lot about how the virus self-assembles into a functional, active menace, but also how we can beat viruses with something as simple as soap.
 

Sentry18

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My daughter came home from school Monday and said they had a hand washing presentation put on by the school nurse. They even had to simulate washing their hands to show they knew how to it properly. Then the nurse reiterated a bit of this same point, that soap is better than hand sanitizer. I bet those kids went home and their parents panicked and ran to Walmart to buy more soap.
 

WVDragonlady

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I still think sanitizer is okay to use until you get home to use the soap and water. Its what I've been doing for years now. After every store or errand ( bank, pharmacy,etc) I use sanitizer and then when I get home the soap and water. I also make it a point to use either a bandanna or a large folded napkin to touch my face ( scratching my nose, or wiping my eyes,etc). Been doing that for years too.
Its really cut down on the number of colds and such I get. That is until the hubby brings something home from work :rolleyes:

Went to the local Dollar General store and they have a sign on the door saying they're out of hand sanitizer. Also saw a woman when I came back out at her car with the cart loaded down with toilet paper, paper towels, napkins, paper plates and styrofoam cups. Either she's having a party or she plans on not doing any washing
 

VThillman

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I bought 2 large bottles of " shampoo" for .$.89 to use for hand washing,but thanks to the not paying attention I picked up conditioner!:(
If there is anything on the shelves that can be confused with TP, that is probably happening too, Meer. And hey, your hair is gonna look great.
 

Sentry18

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Given that this is a homestead forum I'm surprised people are not already making their own soap. Water, oil, NaO2 and you're all set.
Many people on this forum do. Not only soap for washing oneself but laundry soap, dish soap, etc.
 

ClemKadiddlehopper

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Ontario Canada.

They are trying to get a run going on covid supplies, but it is slow slogging in the smaller towns and rural areas. We were at home depot last night and they had all the space down one isle filled with the mandated supplies.

There was bottled water, tp, paper towels, spray bottles of lysol, Clorox wipes 2 liter packs of hand sanitizer, and bins full of n-95 masks all grouped together, along with stacks of large black totes. They even had some of those totes pre-filled and ready to go in shopping carts. I thought there was supposed to be a shortage of some of this stuff.

The good news is that our pm has decided to self quarantine. We are going to choose straws to see who gets to lock the door and throw away the key.

Never let a good crisis go to waste.
 

Terri9630

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We grate our own soap for laundry soap and have for years. Actually, not me, the grandkids do it. Ha. That's what they are for.
All the stores here are now out of liquid antibacterial soap. Maybe they read the article. Ha.
My foster mother was freaking out (on FB) at the empty antibacterial soap shelf. I told her that this was a virus, not bacteria and just get the regular soap. You'd have thought I'd slapped her by the way some people responded.
 

Sentry18

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My foster mother was freaking out (on FB) at the empty antibacterial soap shelf. I told her that this was a virus, not bacteria and just get the regular soap. You'd have thought I'd slapped her by the way some people responded.
This is what happens when we allow Pepsi drinkers to intermingle with the rest of society. 😋
 

joel

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They started all this Do this & do that on TV & the DW ask isn't not everyone doing all that now?!!?
Just to stop the regular viruses & colds, that what my Mother taught me & she dropped out of school after the 4th grade to get married.
No she was not with child. My Mother in law was a force to be reckoned with. Now we have PHDs at the CDC is quoting her years after she has went on to her reward.
 
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