Wash your hands. It’s the advice that’s everywhere right now, and no wonder—along with social distancing, it’s one of the best ways to slow the spread of the coronavirus. But even in that simple dictate, there’s still room for questions: Bar or liquid? Antibacterial or not? Mass-produced or those marketed as “natural,” like the handmade ones you can find at a farmers market? After receiving several reader questions on the best kind of soap to kill the coronavirus, we talked to experts in chemistry and immunology to find out what does—and doesn’t—matter when you’re washing your hands.
What type of soap kills the coronavirus?
The array of brands, styles, and types of soap out there can be dizzying. But in this case, the answer to the best type of soap to use is both simple and easily within your grasp: Use the soap you already have.
According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, soap is defined as a fat or oil (including either animal fats or plant oils, such as olive oil, coconut oil, or palm oil) that has been treated with an alkali (such as lye) to make alkali salts of fatty acids. The reason soap is effective has to do with what happens on a molecular level when soap and the coronavirus meet.
“This particular virus is coated with a lipid coat,” Erin Sheets, an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Minnesota Duluth, told us. “Also in that lipid envelope are membrane proteins—the spike proteins that recognize your proteins inside your lungs to infect you. Those proteins need to have that lipid membrane to work. What soap is doing is actually dissolving and washing away those lipids.”
All soaps—regardless of type or form—can accomplish this effectively, said Sheets.
“Any soap will do the trick,” she said. “Whether it’s liquid soap or bar soap, fancy-pants soap or from the farmer’s market. Cheap-o soap works great, even the little hearts and seashells soap in your grandma’s bathroom.”
Although you can use antibacterial soap if it’s already in your bathroom, Sheets notes it isn’t necessary or any more effective than other kinds of soap. There is one type of product, however, that she suggests steering clear of when you’re washing your hands: Don’t attempt to swap in “soap-free” skin cleansers, which may not be able to dissolve the virus’s lipid coating as soap can. Instead, stick to soap when you wash your hands.
“Just do what’s been around for millennia,” Sheets said. “Use soap.”