Scientists say that even with the best and most expensive research available, a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is at least a year away. Scientists also say that the worst enemy of the virus is that cheap soap by your sink.
That’s because of simple chemistry. In soap lather, a combination of molecules assemble into bubble-like structures called micelles that trap viral matter and other biomaterials—grease, oil, dirt—and rinse them down the drain.
Thomas Gilbert is an associate professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Northeastern. Photo courtesy of Thomas Gilbert
The soaps we use contain a class of compounds called surfactants, which can neutralize germs in our skin such as SARS-CoV-2 and other coronaviruses, pathogens with a crown-like structure and an outer membrane made of lipid molecules and proteins.
“Surfactants basically pry open coronavirus particles and encapsulate viral molecules within micelles suspended in the lather clinging to your hands,” says Thomas Gilbert, an associate professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Northeastern. “That allows the deactivated viral material to be washed away as you rinse your hands.”
SARS-CoV-2 spreads through the air in the form of small particles that an infected person near you breathed, sneezed, coughed, or let loose while talking. They can enter your body through the eyes, mouth, or nose. Recent findings suggest that those germs can also survive hours, even days, when they land on objects made of plastic, metal, and cardboard.
Because the virus can also be contracted by transporting germs from such contaminated objects into your body after you touch your face, public health officials have pushed hand-washing as one of the best ways to protect against COVID-19.
“All hand soaps do basically the same thing in terms of cleaning because they all contain surfactants material,” Gilbert says. “[That] gives them the power to solubilize viral debris and the residues of other biological material, such as mucus and other fluids from an infected person’s respiratory system.”