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Soap vs. sanitizer: What’s best for killing coronavirus?

There’s a lot we still don’t know about COVID-19. What we do know is that frequent handwashing remains one of the most effective ways to curb the spread of the virus.

According to a recent study, handwashing reduces the chances of contracting a respiratory illness by 54 percent —better odds than any other preventive measure you can take in the workplace.

“In the final analysis, it’s the hands. The hands are the connecting piece,” says Elizabeth Scott, co-director of the Center for Hygiene and Health in Home and Community at Simmons University in Boston. “You can’t necessarily control what you touch. You can’t control who else touched it. But you can look after your own hands.”

The first step in encouraging employees to wash their hands more often is to provide the right supplies, which is why many organizations are adding extra handwashing stations or stocking up on supplies such as soap and hand sanitizer. But which products are most effective at neutralizing coronavirus? Here’s what you need to know:

How soap destroys the coronavirus

When employees wash their hands with soap, they’re not just flushing germs down the drain. They’re actually killing them. That’s because soap has the ability to break apart fats—and the coronavirus essentially consists of bits of genetic material encased in fat and protein.

When soap meets a virus, it burrows into the fat coating. Since the chemical bond holding the virus together is weak, it’s enough to break the shell and cause the virus to disintegrate.

The good news is that all conventional soap works this way, which means it doesn’t really matter what type of soap you buy. Even antibacterial soap doesn’t necessarily give you an edge.

“There is no clear evidence that antibacterial soap works better than any other soap,” says Dr. Carl Fichtenbaum, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. “The most important thing is washing hands for at least 20 seconds, and then it is a combination of soap plus mechanical disruption that works.”

Water temperature also doesn’t make a significant difference, since the water would have to be boiling in order to kill germs. While warm water does help disperse the soap better, it isn’t much of a factor in killing coronavirus.

Because soap is so effective at killing viruses, it’s the most widely recommended product for preventing the spread of COVID-19.

The effectiveness of hand sanitizer

Hand sanitizer has become a popular alternative to handwashing, particularly in workplaces where employees may not have easy access to a sink. That’s why sanitizer sales have more than quadrupled during the coronavirus outbreak.

Despite false claims on social media, hand sanitizer can kill viruses on your hands as long as it contains at least 60 percent alcohol. Like soap, alcohol disrupts the outer membrane of the virus, making the particle less stable.

While sanitizer does help, however, it isn’t the most effective option. To achieve the same effect as soap, you’d have to fully submerge your hands in alcohol. While a sanitizer rub will cover most of your hand’s surface, there are plenty of hard-to-reach nooks and crannies that remain uncleaned. Plus, sanitizer becomes less effective if your hands are dirty or greasy.

The advantage of hand sanitizer is that you can easily install dispensers throughout the workplace, making it more accessible for employees. For example, putting hand sanitizer dispensers at a main entrance(s) is an excellent way to protect a whole facility from unwanted pathogens. Just make sure you’re buying a product that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.

In general, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends soap and water because it’s better at killing viruses. But hand sanitizer works when handwashing isn’t an accessible option—and it’s certainly better than nothing.

Need help figuring out which cleaning products to buy? If you’re in Portland or Northern Virginia, contact Cleansolution to learn more.